Hope and tears in equal measure inside a Syrian refugee camp

(originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald)

She smiles; but she is not OK.

She smiles because she is a young girl with hope, who has been promised that things are going to get better.

Soriya is a bright-eyed, nine-year-old girl who, on the eve of the destruction of her village by the henchmen of ISIS, fled Syria with her family and has found refuge in the Shatila camp near the Eastern border of Lebanon.

Her toothy smile erupted as soon as the foreign visitors entered the room. The group was all that anyone had been talking about for days. They were bringing a photographer – an American, which is still seen as particularly exciting – to meet the family. She was going to hear their story. Perhaps, by it being told, it would help things.

The photographer is my wife, Alissa Everett, who was there on assignment for the Global Fund for Women. I tagged along to try to better understand the humanitarian crisis that is spinning outwards from Damascus

I came here because I am Australian by birth; in the boots I wear and in the teams I support. But I have grown embarrassed by my country’s policy on refugees. I am shocked that we’ve attempted to “turn back the boats,” as if putting up your own personal umbrella stops the rain. I am ashamed and saddened that we process refugees in offshore centres of interrogation and humiliation. Most of all, I am embarrassed that I once thought that was a reasonable thing to do.

Alissa enters the room with a calm and respect that comes from knowing these conditions well. Too well, she’d say. She is a veteran of conflict and post-conflict zones. She’s photographed the short, bright flashes of war – the moment the cannon recoils, the instant the chopper fires into the village – but increasingly she covers the long and intractable conundrums that are the people impacted by war, the tented condition that is the endless plight of the displaced. These are the internally displaced camps and the refugee camps that are “camps” only in reference to the temporary materials used to house the increasingly permanent residents.

No matter how many you’ve been inside, or what conditions you find people living under, how dangerous, how tenuous, it’s the smiles on the children that get you, Alissa says. They are not coerced, presented just for the camera or lured by the promise of lollies. The photos are not a poster print for a fund-raising campaign, but an authentic expression of youthful enthusiasm and hope. Grateful that you are there, hoping that it means things really are going to get better. Perhaps you are the proof, the physical manifestation that people do care, when days, weeks and months suggest the opposite.

Compared to some of the children in the camp, Soriya’s grin is a recent muscle memory. Her family knew better times not so long ago. Perhaps the memories that make it hard for adults to find comfort are easier for the children to cling onto. Just six months ago they had a house, two jobs, schools to send their children to. Then their village fell inside the nebulous borders of the world’s newest caliphate. It’s harder for them to imagine what a flattened village looks like. Or to wonder what job prospects remain for their father when the entire supply chain of the industry in which he had worked is in a billion pieces. Nobody will mention it, but it is incomprehensible that a third of their classmates lie buried under Syrian soil.

A second cup of tea is served, Soriya and her sisters observe from a careful distance.The adults talk in darker tones, as a translator turns their sentences into incomprehensible words that the visitors seem to understand. The visitor takes notes, and sometimes the camera clicks. Somebody is crying now, an adult. They get a hug from a visitor. Now somebody is laughing, and then everyone is laughing.

None of this is missed by Soriya or her three sisters. They watch everything.

What Soriya feels about the visit is easy to read. Her face flushes with its emotions, a rolling display of surprise, joy, turning to concern and fear when the adults cry and then, when the laughter returns, relief, sweet relief, joy and more joy. It’s all there to see, spread across her face.

She smiles, and a photo is taken. The big camera is turned around, and Soriya sees her own smile in the display, and somehow her grin finds another notch to wind upwards.

Alissa has travelled through the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years documenting the families who remain trapped in the no-man’s-land of refugee camps in the countries that border Syria. Here in the capital of Beirut, we see one part of this crisis. Turkey (where we were last month) is different, Jordan different again. As much wealthier and much larger nations debate their appetite to resettle hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of refugees Lebanon has no such luxury. Certain states of the US are refusing to take a single refugee.

Yet Lebanon, already one of the world’s most densely populated countries, with a population of about five million, is sheltering well over a million people like Soriya and her family.

This 20 per cent impact on population compares to even the most open-hearted European nations where no country is approaching 0.2 per cent.

Frankly, Lebanon deserves some sort of award for its peacefulness. Somehow juggling four main cultural groups. Today it has so much to recommend it: it is the Middle East’s most multicultural society, most tolerant political system, and it had been enjoying an extended building-led boom in the 25 years since it ended its own bloody (stupid) civil war. Any traveller who has come of their own fruition will tell you its people are warm and inviting and its food is awesome.

Physically constrained on the west by the Mediterranean, Lebanon is effectively an enclave inside a war zone. To its south lies the perma-battle of Israel and Palestine, which in conflict terms is a grandparent compared to the terrible toddler that is the conflict in Syria, which is erupting along its eastern and northern borders.

I’ve come here because I was shamefully ignorant. Until recently I’d never been this close to the “action” as it is misnamed; action is what you hope for at football games, tragedy is what is inevitable when guns are drawn.

And while I’ve studied the Middle East, coming here first in 1988 to the University of Cairo, this conflict was way too hard for me to understand. Or rather, it was way too easy to just hope it would go away before I’d have to wade in and try to understand it. But it isn’t going away. I came here because, until recently, I came from a country whose ex-prime minister said, without a wink, that this was a conflict of “baddies versus baddies”. When I saw the bodies of children I wondered how Tony Abbott, an economic migrant to Australia himself, could be talking about them.

The Syrian mess involves a clash between 21st century dictatorial repression (certainly could be called a baddie) and 9th century religious fundamentalists (Wikipedia’s definition of baddies), but it’s a simplification to the point of irresponsibility to describe the conflict as this.

People like Soriya and her family fall in neither of the categories above, yet they are very much part of this conflict.

And if you need to look for “baddies” to blame, we might wish to tag those who left behind the military detritus from the unfinished campaigns of Iraq wars and those who, as of last month, have cranked up a fully-blown reheating of the Cold War.

Need any more baddies? What about borders drawn with all the sensitivity of retreating colonial overlords? Or the post-WWII exercise in human relocation without local consultation – the reshaped Israel.

And in the basket of collective responsibility, what about our responsibility for the climate gyrations? There is no question (from anyone inside Syria) that the conflict would not have happened (at least now) had not the region experienced the biggest drought in recorded history. And they invented recording history not far from here.

The girls who are now playing with the contents of Alissa’s camera bag are not baddies yet the conflict we collectively created is their life. Sitting here, it’s hard not to feel these children are now our children. It’s impossible to not feel a responsibility. If we all live in a global village, then our sewerage has been piped through their part of town.

More tea is poured, final photos are taken. Soriya climbs onto Alissa’s lap. Her parents ask questions about her younger sister who is having worsening seizures. It’s worrying her parents a lot. As the children can see this, they are sent out to play in the “street” below.

The streets are no more than thin alleys that connect one temporary structure to another. Soriya and her sisters kick balls and organise chasing games in the shadow of an overhead web of wires and pipes that deliver electricity and water. Many stories are told of a kicked ball that sent a twisting web of deadly spaghetti down upon the children. Death by electrocution seems an ironic end, particularly as some of the refugees come from villages that are yet to see power and Lebanon’s grid only delivers power for two-thirds of any day.

Soriya and her sisters attend makeshift schools, parents and NGO’s doing their best to occupy young minds, continue some semblance of development for those new to the already over-crowded school districts. Local schools have taken to running in shifts, Lebanese kids until 2pm; refugee kids until after dark. Soriya attends when she can, but the adults know it is more likely that most of her female peers will attend their wedding celebration long before any school graduation. With simply no other way to feed their daughters, many parents accept that the aged lothario knocking on the door might be better than starvation’s wolf.

The children return, the visiting party must move on. Alissa repacks her camera bag and walks to the street, down the four flights of metal stairs that are attached by thin welds to the combination of sea containers and the protruding rebar of thinly poured concrete.

Only now does Soriya start to cry. In the confusion of all the adults hugging and pressing kisses, she’s missed her chance to see Alissa. As the group stands on the street below, her father calls out and comes running down, the staircase leaning out as he rounds each corner, young Soriya on his hip.

She wraps Alissa with arms, wets her face with tears, and is soon smiling again.

But she’s not OK, because the future holds only uncertainty, and this is what you can feel in her body when you hold her tightly.

Some names and locations have been changed to protect the subjects.

Alissa Everett travelled to Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt with the Global Fund for Women whose work supports women in grassroots initiatives and advocates for women’s rights internationally. She travelled to Jordan with UNICEF. Peter Holmes à Court funded his own travel and carried a lot of bags.

alissaeverett.com and facebook.com/peterhac