From Syria to the Heart of Europe: Journey of a Refugee Actor

by Search - Lebanon

on May 12, 2017

Every man for himself. That was the creed that many in Mahmoud’s refugee camp had to follow, in order to survive. That’s what he believed in, too.

Before the struggle of life in the camp, Mahmoud was a student in Syria — and already a refugee. His family fled Palestine when he was younger and had integrated well into Syrian society. A kind, passionate human being, Mahmoud studied diligently and had a clear vision of what he wanted to become.

Then, the Syrian conflict broke out, and his world was turned upside down. He left Syria in a haste, crossing the border with Lebanon with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. Like him, hundreds of thousands poured outside of the country, leaving their papers and belongings behind. Again, he had lost a home. Again, the future had become uncertain and scary.

Mahmoud found respite from the horrors of war in the camp, but a different set of challenges was waiting for him. At sixteen, he was thrown into a new world, “damp and chaotic, with lots of staring eyes, sharp claws, big fangs.” He didn’t feel safe; even the Lebanese security forces were mostly unable to enforce laws within the settlement. He realized that, in his new society, respect was the most valuable currency, the only possession that could keep him and his family secure. To earn it, he had to be feared. Troublemakers or drug dealers were at the top of the food chain; for the time being, he was at the very bottom of it, but was also determined to climb.

Then, a fortuitous meeting with Search for Common Ground Lebanon set him on a different course.

Mhamoud (front row, second from the right) with his theater crew.

Mhamoud (front row, second from the right) with his theater crew.

In 2014, a friend invited Mahmoud’s sister Lama to our first Better Together summer camp, and Lama’s fiancé asked Mahmoud to tag along. On the morning they were supposed to leave, Lama decided not to go anymore; Mahmoud was embarrassed to tell her fiancé, and resolved to go alone.

I was going to have fun for a couple days and come back. I never thought that I’d become an agent of change!”

The Better Together program addressed the crucial challenge of reducing tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities, then at an all-time high. The displacement of more than a million Syrians put enormous strain on Lebanese society, limiting the availability of resources and creating dangerous rifts along ethnic lines in the country. Our initiative focused on youth from both groups, brought together at arts summer camps and workshops to learn drawing, theater, music, and film. More than three hundred young people participated in the program, discovering how to battle stereotypes and build tolerance through art. The project was highly successful; the music and films produced by the young artists and a final tour helped spread positive messages to a whole generation of young people in Lebanon.

Like many others who participated in the program, Mahmoud was initially diffident. He wasn’t comfortable letting his guard down around young Lebanese. He built barriers between himself and others. After the first couple of days, he felt more comfortable and started to open up to the 80 youth from Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine that were participating in the camp.

The crowd at the Better Together summer camp!

“It was something beautiful, you find yourself among 80 people who are so different from each other, and somehow, for reasons I didn’t understand, everyone loved each other.”

Our facilitators divided the youth into groups that would experiment with different art forms and messages. Mahmoud participated in a drawing session lead by Elias, one of the artists working on Better Together. Mahmoud drew a mirror that didn’t reflect the image of the person standing in front of it. “I don’t leave a trace, even in a mirror,” he wrote underneath it. From the drawing, the trauma he was experiencing emerged in all its power.

Elias was touched by it and approached Mahmoud to talk about his feelings. As the days went by, the bond between them grew stronger, becoming a mentorship that freed Mahmoud from the grip of fear and mistrust.

“[Better Together] showed us the valuable things within ourselves.”

Mahmoud tried out different art forms and found his true calling in the theater class. There, the trainers acted as role models and taught the youth how to use art as a medium of positive communication, to develop connections across differences, defuse tensions, and break stereotypes. In theater class and during the performances, Mahmoud became friends with the rest of the crew and learned how to see the issues that plagued his society from different perspectives. “For the first time in my life, I felt safe to discuss my ideas and views of the world,” he explained. “I changed 400% because of the trust and safety I felt at the camp and in the sessions. I learned how to talk to people about critical subjects without starting any conflict. Not only did I learn to accept — I also learned to understand relationships that used to be alien to my culture.”

After six months of training, his group went on four tours across the country and performed for Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian crowds. Squinting to shield his eyes from the bright lights on stage, Mahmoud frequently saw familiar faces. People from his refugee camp sat in the audience; among them, those he used to fear, now sporting big smiles. “It warmed my heart to see the same people who used to oppress us clapping as we performed. I was impressed that the play chased their fears away and changed their perceptions,” Mahmoud said.

Mhamoud during a performance.

Mhamoud during a performance.

In 2015, we launched a new season of Better Together summer camps, and Mahmoud volunteered to participate. Every day, he had to pass through six army checkpoints to get to the location of the camps. For a refugee without papers like him, it was a huge risk; at any time, he could be stopped, searched, deemed illegal, and sent back to Syria. He decided to come regardless. The dangers of deportation, family issues, and long working hours weren’t enough to dissuade him from participating.

Then, Mahmoud’s life took a turn again. Towards the end of the project, he and his family were forced to leave Lebanon and take the road one more time. This time, the destination was Germany.

“If I learned anything from life is that it doesn’t get easier. We only learn how to deal with bigger challenges.”

That’s where Mahmoud lives today. The impact with life in Germany was possibly even harder than when he fled to Lebanon: language barriers and stereotypes towards refugees erected a wall between him and the rest of the world. But this time, Mahmoud knows how to cope with these obstacles.

In addition to launching his own theater initiative, Mahmoud is studying German with other refugees.

Most importantly, he’s trying to launch his own project on the mold of Better Together, to help refugees integrate in Germany. So far, he organized six theater workshops and three training sessions on nonviolent communication, conflict resolution, and the management of emotions. Lack of funding and support forced him to stop for now, but he his hopeful that he will be able to resume the project soon. “I’m trying to work on the project here, though it is very hard […]. I lack the administrative, managerial, and financial resources to replicate the same project again, but I want to try to do it!” Mahmoud said.

He credits Better Together for having helped him cope with the tragic reality of displacement.

“This project literally saved me. It was like a ship that took me in while drowning. Now I can stretch my hand to others and lift them onboard the ship.”

Learn more about this and other projects on our Lebanon country page.

Banner: the Better Together summer camp in Beeka, 2014.