Salam Neighbor: Come Visit Zaatari and See Authentic, Real-Life Syrian Refugees!

Travel to the edge of war and immerse yourself into the lives of Syrian refugees

Salam Neighbor is a documentary made by and centered around two white, middle-class American males who decide to make an excursion to the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan: Za’atari. They show up at the camp with their film gear, having made no effort to study Arabic or learn about the culture beforehand, and are determined to live there ‘as refugees’, dependent on food handouts from UNHCR, sheltered by one of the agency’s $1000 tents (there is in fact a shortage of resources for refugees in need).

As I sat there, cringing, I was expecting a Cannibal Holocaust kind of twist, in which gullible colonialist ethnographer-tourists unwittingly walk into a violent reality and become the object of derision. But the twist was that there was no twist. These guys were actually staying in Za’atari without a clue or postcolonial critique, and now they’re gaining fame and more than a few bucks off from their holiday.

When Chris and Zach first arrive, they set up camp in a completely culturally inappropriate place: the kitchen where women gathered.”You can’t sleep here! There are so many places to put your tent! Why here??”, actual refugees shout at them. The boys are perplexed; after all, they’re here to help the natives, so why are they so angry with them? After what I suspect were some behind-the-scenes money exchanges, the two were able to keep their tent in the kitchen, untroubled by the incident, untroubled by the fact they might have just forced refugee women to evacuate their safe space. Indeed, throughout the film, women are never shown near the tent; they’ve left to accommodate for the film-makers.

Chris and Zach do not stop there when it comes to forcing refugees to move against their will. When they discover that 11-year-old Raouf was not attending the UNICEF school in the camp, they psychologically tortured him, without trying to learn the reasons behind his actions. Day after day after day, they persist in telling Raouf to go to class: ‘Come’on buddy! It’ll only take 10 minutes to walk there! We can walk with you!’ Zach’s humanitarian goals obstruct him from seeing the terror in Raouf’s eyes and his shaking body that are so obvious to any humane viewer. When they finally escort Raouf to school, the child suffers an emotional breakdown. It is only then that the men speak to his father (they hadn’t consulted his family about taking him to school??) and discover that Raouf used to love school, until one day his school in Syria was bombed. Raouf’s fear of school was due to post-traumatic stress. After we learn this, the film does not focus on Raouf or Syrian children’s pain: the camera instead zooms into Chris’s puffy red eyes. Two minutes are spent filming the white, middle-class American males’ utter shock. Raouf’s father is not present for the remainder of the film.

The tagline for Salam Neighbor is literally an advert for humanitarian tourism: Travel to the edge of war and immerse yourself into the lives of Syrian refugees. But the lives of Syrian refugees are presented to voluntourists without any mention of, say, the camp’s sexual trafficking and violence. The film can’t even get the sheer fact of the confinement of over 100,000 people within 5.2 km2  right (the film gets the number wrong by 15,000). Nor are the problematics of going freely in and out of a space where inhabitants cannot leave addressed.  Chris and Zach do not stay in Za’atari overnight ––the authorities warned them it was too dangerous. Denial of this reality was reinforced when at the screening in Amman, the duo affirmed: “there is no danger in Za’atari”. Sure there’s no danger. So long as the authorities keep white Americans out of it in order to avoid bad press.

At a screening of the film in Amman, the refugees were put on display as trophies of humanitarianism, then shuffled straight back to Za’atari. The directors, due to their unrestrained mobility, Skyped in from an airport.

During the Q&A, there was one pertinent question asked: “How did you address the colonialist overtones and power imbalances in the making of this documentary?” The answer:

“We didn’t need to prepare anything. We just showed up there, and everyone was so welcoming!”

In any case, the majority of the comments at the Q&A were extremely positive: “Everyone around me was crying!”; “I worked in Za’atari, and it was my dream to make a film like this.” “It is films like these that will make Americans understand we need to take in Syrian refugees.” This is revealing of the state of general intelligence, of liberal thought, and of the aid industry. After all, the film has raised hundreds of thousands for refugees. It has the power to persuade. And that is precisely what is frightening about it.

Chris and Zach’s goal in their ‘intervention’ is to persuade by showing their own imaginary Za’atari. They want to show other white middle-class Americans that Syrian refugees are human beings too: look how welcoming they are, look, they play games and crack jokes, see the Syrian women make arts and crafts, Syrians can even thrive economically within a refugee camp. These may all be true stories, but they are presented while censoring other truths. The central problem is this: a truth presented by the white, middle class American males takes precedence over the truth lived by the refugees. Their truth is greater than the other. In presenting a distorted, saccharine Za’atari by cutting out any image of poverty, starvation, sexual trafficking or violence, in order to persuade Americans to donate, serious ethical dilemmas are at play.

In the Middle East, Salam Neighbor was only screened only once: in Amman, on 13th July 2016. It had already been shown in 300 locations throughout America. It was made by white people, for white people, who can only identify and show support for Syrians through the eyes of Americans. 

At the screening in Amman, one Jordanian stood up: his footage of a sandstorm, used in the film, and for which he had risked his life had not been appropriately credited. Jordanians who enter Za’atari are barred by authorities, threatened with knives, and their movements are controlled: they do not have the freedom to make feature-length documentaries, so their footage is sold to Americans. To play their politically correct part, Zach and Chris smiled: “Hey man! We’ve been looking for you!” (though a simple call to the Royal Film Commission would have been all the effort needed). The producer explained away that the footage was properly licensed, and that was that. In a film where the unappealing stories of the violence suffered by refugees are silenced beneath the pleasant experience of American tourists, it comes as no surprise that unwanted criticism has no place.

In fact, the film itself had many instances in which local voices were ignored in favor of humanitarian discourse. Raouf’s father tells Chris and Zach they are ‘opening old wounds’, and yet they continue to torment the child. An aid worker tells them that women in Syria were forced to stay home, but that in Jordan, they now had opportunities to work outside. Yet an interview with a single-mother who was a nurse in Syria, and now works at home in Mafraq, shows this is not the case. By being unaware of its own contradictions, the utterly naïve film is an insight into the minds of humanitarians who only see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear. The film is not reflective of Za’atari, of Syrian refugees, or of Jordan: it is, as its own tagline demonstrates, a sterilized vacation for Westerners in a refugee camp. What it is reflective of is of the global neoliberal system in which people have unequal access to mobility and discourse production. Just as in Cannibal Holocaust, but unwittingly so, Salam Neighbor’s one point of interest is that it turns the privileged, adventure- and fame-hungry filmmakers into objects of scrutiny. It is an ethnography of the mind of the uncritical and self-centered Western humanitarian.