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Syrian lives

Salam Neighbor: a bridge between Americans and Syrians

Four young documentary filmmakers are attempting to shine a light on positive stories of resilience from the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

When an email arrived in my overflowing inbox with news that yet more visitors were coming in January—this time a documentary film crew—my first reaction was, “We are too busy for this.”

We joke that we are too popular in the International Rescue Committee’s Mafraq field office, with our constant stream of journalists, donors and delegations of all sorts. We know that these visitors have good intentions and want to learn more about the situation here and our programs to help those in need.

IRC Salam Neighbor team in tent in Zaatari camp

The Salam Neighbor team making tea in their tent at the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. The three Americans and one Jordanian are spending a month living and filming daily life in the camp.

Photo: Peter Biro/IRC

And, in fact, the publicity they generate is useful for us and can mean more funding and support. But visitors can be disruptive, too. We’ve also had some problems with sensational reporters disregarding confidentiality and misrepresenting our beneficiaries and programs. 

So when we met with the filmmakers producing a feature on the Syrian crisis in Jordan, I was, to put it politely, hesitant. 

1001 Media, an organization whose mission is to dispel negative stereotypes about the Arab world, had teamed up with Living on One, a nonprofit production studio that aims to shed light on global issues. Their joint project, Salam Neighbor, in partnership with the United Nations, Save the Children and the IRC, seeks to identify compelling stories of refugee resilience to share with an American audience.

I knew that Living on One had produced a previous film about four American friends living in rural Guatemala on $1 a day for two months, an attempt to shed light on the extreme poverty in that country. I hadn’t seen the film, but I was skeptical that young people planning to live in a tent in Zaatari camp “like refugees” really got it.

he Salam Neighbor team provides an evening wrap up of their day's activities at Zaatari camp

The Salam Neighbor team provides an evening wrap up of their day's activities at Zaatari camp. From left are Sean Leonard, Zach Ingrasci, Chris Temple and Ibraheem Shaheen.

Photo: Peter Biro/IRC

After our meeting, however, I realized I may have misjudged them. The crew was fully focused on positive stories. They didn’t want to meet rape victims or children suffering from shrapnel wounds as so many journalists do.

They wanted to speak with refugees hopeful about the future, making the best of their situation in Jordan, and finding creative ways to cope. They explained the reason for the title, Salam Neighbor (“salam” means “hello” in Arabic), in the trailer for their film: “We really believe that is the first step—greeting these uprooted, displaced people as global neighbors.”

During the team’s first week of their month-long visit, they divided their time between the Zaatari refugee camp and the nearby city of Mafraq.

They spent most of their time listening and learning about our programs and the challenges of this humanitarian crisis.

While they are just getting started, their idea for a full-length feature focused on positive stories of resilience is a welcome change. And if this film brings greater awareness, understanding and compassion for the Syrians we work with every day, it will be, indeed, well worth our time.