Story highlights

  • Nearly 12 million people - half of Syria's pre-war population - have been displaced since 2011.
  • Nearly one million from Syria are living as registered refugees in Lebanon.
  • 5.4 million Syrian refugees have fled to other countries.

In 1990, Lebanon emerged from a 15-year civil war politically fractured and under the control of the Syrian army.

Syrian troops eventually withdrew in 2005 but many Lebanese remained deeply wary of their neighbour to the north and east.

In the two decades that followed, Lebanon continued to be dogged by regional, religious and political conflict - and Lebanon's efforts to stabilise have been frustrated by factionalism, fraught relations with Syria, Israeli interventions and internal divisions arising from Iran and Syria's backing of the Shia Muslim movement Hezbollah in south Lebanon.

After the Syrian revolution and subsequent war in 2011, many wondered whether Lebanon could withstand yet another regional conflict.

Today, in a country roughly the same size as the US city of Los Angeles, Lebanon still hosts some 450,000 Palestinian refugees - and since 2011 roughly 980,000 Syrian refugees have fled over the border into Lebanon.

Amid the humanitarian crisis, the Lebanese themselves feel torn between their long-standing resentment of Syria's prolonged military presence in their country and a desire to help their Arab neighbours.

It's a dilemma that filmmaker Raghida Skaff explores in Shahira: My Syrian Friendin which she tells the story of her strong personal relationship with a seven-year-old Syrian girl whose family find themselves in her village of Zeghrine 30km east of Beirut.


FILMMAKER's VIEW

By Raghida Skaff

I first met Shahira in 2014.

Her family had fled the war in Syria and her parents were working as gardeners on my brother's property 30km east of Beirut.

We didn't talk much in the beginning, but Shahira would always find a reason to approach me. She would say things like, "You have a beautiful car, it's a nice yellow colour", or "Your flowers are amazing."

I would come from Beirut on the weekend, and when she heard the sound of my car, she'd rush out of the house, greeting me playfully, enthusiastically. I responded to her the same way, charmed by this adorable child.

In time, we began to have conversations, and eventually, we became friends. She started to help me in the garden whenever I was planting or watering flowers. I discovered how smart and funny Shahira was and how she always wanted to learn new things.

I began to think about making a film about her and our friendship. Working on the film forced me to confront my own conflicting feelings about the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Shahira would say things like, "You have a beautiful car, it's a nice yellow colour" [Al Jazeera]

Painful memories

Like many Lebanese, we suffered from the Syrian army occupation of Lebanon between 1976 and 2005. Our hometown Zeghrine was on the demarcation line in Mount Lebanon that separated the Lebanese and Syrian armies.

Even though the Syrian army withdrew, many of us feel that Syrian domination and interference continue in Lebanon. We carry these painful memories with us; they sometimes conflict with our sympathy for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and their tragic circumstances.

Raghida Skaff, filmmaker

We experienced 14 long years of occupation with bombings, killings, kidnappings, displacement and destruction.

Thousands of Lebanese were killed, tortured, or abducted. Syrian prisons are still full of Lebanese detainees about whom we know nothing.

Syrian rocket launchers had no mercy on our children, women, elderly or innocent. I was injured by a car bomb that had been set up by the Syrian army. I still have shrapnel in my neck.

Even though the Syrian army withdrew, many of us feel that Syrian domination and interference continue in Lebanon. We carry these painful memories with us; they sometimes conflict with our sympathy for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and their tragic circumstances.

Few around me had objections to my friendship with Shahira since she is an innocent girl and has nothing to do with what happened and is still happening in Lebanon. But my family had reservations, saying I was free to be friends with her as long as I didn't bring her home.

When war broke out in Syria, large numbers of Syrian refugees came to Lebanon. We have about one million registered Syrian refugees, but many - including myself - believe that number is closer to two million, in a country of four million Lebanese.

Despite assistance they're receiving, the refugees' lives are hard; they cope with death and loss while living in tents without even basic necessities. Most are innocent and just want to protect their children from the horrors of war.

We sympathise with them and their tragedy, but at the same time, we fear their presence could return us to occupation, even if in a different form. Their sheer number has greatly complicated life for the Lebanese; among other things, unemployment has soared from eight to 35 percent.

'We fear for the stability of this country'

Despite all of this, it was a joy for me to make this film.

With the Middle East continuing to struggle with war and division, this film was an opportunity to consider how we might reconcile our differences and work towards a brighter future.

During the filming, Shahira made friends with the crew, especially the sound engineer, whom she called "Abou el sawt" "the father of sound". She always tried to sneakily shout into the microphone while he was wearing his headphones. She was eager to learn about photography and filmmaking and took joy in the filming process: "Camera ready? Sound ready? Silence … rolling," and then, "cut".

Shahira and her cheerfulness made the shooting very pleasant for the entire crew. She told all her friends that she was friends with the director and that she was the film’s heroine, saying that she wanted to become a famous actress.

Three years after filming, Shahira was earning very high marks in school, especially in English. My hope is that Shahira will fulfil her dreams to become a teacher or a famous actress. She is very smart and very outgoing and our friendship has brought us both joy.

I hope that peace will prevail in Syria, Lebanon and the Middle East. We hope that the war will end and the refugees will be able to return safely to their homes in Syria. If not, we fear for the stability of this country.

Source: Al Jazeera