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Salam Neighbor: Adding humanity to the refugee crisis

Salam Neighbor: Adding humanity to the refugee crisis
The Burkle Center's Alexandra Lieben (right) introduces Salam Darwaza (center) and Lilian Alba (left). (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

The documentary “Salam Neighbor,” screened last week by the Burkle Center, shed new light on the daily lives of the inhabitants of a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

"[Refugees] need help, and so much more great work can be done right here in Los Angeles.”

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)


UCLA International Institute, January 24, 2017 --- As conflict ravages Syria, millions of refugees have fled to communities around the world searching for safety and a new home. This refugee and resettlement crisis has dominated global politics for the past several years and is the subject of much discussion and scrutiny.


On Tuesday, January 17, the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations held a screening of the film “Salam Neighbor,” followed by a discussion with one of the film’s producers and a local refugee settlement expert. The screening, held in the Carnesale Commons, drew dozens of students and community members eager to learn more about the crisis and the refugees in their own communities.


The film presents a unique perspective on the refugee situation by following filmmakers Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci as they live among the 80,000 Syrian refugees who inhabit the Za’atari refugee camp in northern Jordan. As they live like refugees in a tent in the midst of the camp, they develop meaningful relationships with their displaced neighbors over the course of a month. 


Seeing refugees as ordinary people


Following the screening, producer Salam Darwaza spoke to attendees about her own experience growing up as the child of Palestinian refugees, calling herself as a “host-country kid.” She gained a unique perspective on the world by growing up between the cultures of East and West, she said. That perspective led her to found the 1001 MEDIA Production company, which aims to “use the power of film to initiate more positive dialogue between the Middle East and the West,” she remarked.


"No one was sharing the stories of ordinary people like you and me, who wanted peace and safety for their families,” Darwaza explained to the audience. When asked why she’d reached out to Chris and Zach specifically to direct the film, she cited their 2015 film “Living on One Dollar.” The film, which explored extreme poverty in Guatemala, focused largely on the stories of individuals and the humanity of people living in poverty. "Other filmmakers are in there for a day or two,” said Darwaza.


“[O]ften, Westerners come in asking things like ‘where's the child who was shot, where are the sick people,’” she said, instead of learning about the workings of the communities and bonds that are formed within camps like Za’atari. "Now, maybe, you'll think about these people as people, not statistics or numbers,” she added.


Darwaza claimed that “Americans like to see themselves” in the media that they consume, noting this movie was a chance for audiences to see a bit of themselves in the Za’atari refugees. "I truly hope that you see the Syrian crisis in a different way,” Darwaza concluded. “I hope that you understand that these individuals may have different stories than us, but they are not people to fear.”


Political pressure has reduced refugee resettlement in U.S. 


Lilian Alba, director of the Local Integration and Family Empowerment (LIFE) Division of the International Institute of Los Angeles (IILA), supervises the resettling of refugees and displaced persons in the Los Angeles region. Alba noted that the stories of the Syrian refugees in “Salam Neighbor” were extremely similar to those of the people she encountered every day at work.


“Despite their struggles, they have hope,” she explained. “Refugees just want to get back to work. Every day that goes by without work and a home has a long-term impact on them and their families.”


To Alba’s dismay, there are currently only 136 Syrian refugees in Los Angeles. “That, unfortunately, is due to political pressure,” she lamented. “[E]verything is on hold with incoming Syrian refugees” under the new Trump administration, she said. While there is doubt and stress regarding the administration among the refugee community in LA, Alba assured the audience that authorities in Los Angeles and California were still dedicated to helping and hosting refugees.


“It’s time for all of us to have dialogues on what can we do. What does a refugee look like?” asked Alba as she turned to the audience. “If you don't know about refugees, take the time to learn,” she urged. “Use resources to inform yourselves.” Darwaza echoed this sentiment, asking the crowd to spread the film’s message to their own communities and not “miss an opportunity to help a fellow human being in need of support.”


When one of the students in the audience asked what they individually could do, Alba and Darwaza offered the website,, as a resource for several involvement opportunities. They also mentioned community organizations such as churches, which will accept all the help they can get when a refugee family arrives.


“It’s powerful to donate your own time,” said Darwaza, explaining to the crowd that one of the most significant ways they could help would be to get to know the refugees in their own community, advocate for them and bring the conversation to a local level. “They need help, and so much more great work can be done right here in Los Angeles.”