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"For young refugees, Palestine has become a myth, says director

June 07, 2014
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [Right of Return] [refugees] [refugee camps]

Axel Salvatori-Sinz’s movie "Shebabs of Yarmouk" had its Palestinian premier at the Franco-Arab film festival.

“Dear Hassan, it is my turn to write.”

Axel Salvatori-Sinz, a French moviemaker, is back in Paris. He’s writing to a friend from Yarmouk, a camp for Palestinian refugees in Damascus, after having spent several months in Syria’s war-torn capital.

The camera is shaking as he drives through the rainy French streets, his words appearing on the screen. But Yarmouk is no longer there: In the civil war that is raging in Syria, 60% of the camp has been destroyed. Neither is Hassan:

“One day, authorities said to your family you had died the day of your arrest.  -- They refused to give your body back. Who knows about the Syrian regime?”

This short film was the poignant start of the Franco-Arab film festival, organized by the French Institute of Jerusalem, in Ramallah on Thursday the 5th of June. It served as an introduction to Shebabs of Yarmouk, Salvatori-Sinz’ first documentary film, which tells the stories of Hassan and his friends living in the camp.

Behind the scenes

Salvatori-Sinz filmed Shebabs of Yarmouk from 2009 to 2011, just before the start of the Syrian revolution. He had come to know the five friends while working for a cultural center in the camp and moved to live with their families to shoot the movie.

“It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life”, he said. “These people gave me so much.”

Officially, filming in Syria is not allowed. To be seen as a tourist, Salvatori-Sinz used only simple equipment. Most of the movie is shot inside the houses or out of the windows.

In the one scene in which the director films Tasmeen and Sameer sitting on a rooftop, a man from the opposite building starts staring at them and appears to be making phone calls. The group decides to move back inside.

“In Syria, you have to always be careful with the mukhabarat”, Salvatori-Sinz said, referring to the country’s infamously brutal intelligence service.

Last images of Yarmouk

Salvatori-Sinz says Yarmouk used to be the “capital of Palestine existing outside of Palestine.” It was the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and served as a gathering point for Palestinian fighters.

According to UNRWA, the United Nations Work and Relief Agency, Yarmouk was home to more than 148,500 registered refugees before Syria’s civil war began in March of 2011. Although the majority of them fled fighting in the capital, in July 2013 government forces besieged 20,000 inhabitants that were still living in the camp.

In March 2014, at least 128 people died after a famine broke out in the camp due to the government blockade.

“I can’t believe that the only thing remaining in the camp are the memories I have in my mind,” Salvatori-Sinz writes in his short film. Unwillingly, his movie became a contemporary archive of Yarmouk.

Palestinian youth, people like anyone else

At the movie screening in Ramallah, one member of the audience criticized the director for not mentioning Israel, the source of the refugee problem. But for Salvatori-Sinz, the aim of the movie is not to focus on the characters’ Palestinian side, but first and foremost, to show them as human beings just like anyone else.

This is also what we see in the movie: Young people playing cards together, balancing between their parents’ expectations and their own dreams, worrying about having enough money to marry.

At the same time, Shebabs of Yarmouk portrays an image of Arab youth not often in the Western world. Even in the Arab region, it might challenge some conservative perceptions: The shebab (young people in Arabic) in the camp smoke, drink, and even have sex before marriage.

Yet being a Palestinian inevitably leaves a mark on the young people’s lives. Living in the camp means a modest lifestyle, and even getting a passport or a visa is an extra challenge compared to Syrians.

Many have a mixed relationship to Yarmouk: This is the home of their loved-ones, but also a place with few opportunities.

The land of marvelous oranges

To leave or not is one of the central questions for these Palestinian youth. While Hassan wants to stay in the camp, Ala’a decides to immigrate to Chile with his wife.

Salvatori-Sinz said he could see the change in his friends during the years he spent with them: At first politically motivated young people, they began to shift their focus toward constructing their own lives.

“Tell me, is leaving a solution?” asks a father, a second-generation refugee, to his son in one scene of the movie.

The son takes a moment before answering: “It is an individual solution, not a collective one.”

For many young people in the camp, Palestine has become a myth.

“They hear a lot about it, for example how oranges and olives there were marvelous,” Salvatori-Sinz said. “But not everyone would necessarily like to return to live in Palestine if they could. The refugees are very divided on this issue.”

The filmmaker considers the right of return more like a legitimate right that the Palestinians are campaigning for. However, many young people do not really believe in it.

“Some of the refugees might feel even more Palestinian now that they have had to flee from Yarmouk to other countries,” Salvatori-Sinz said. “They don’t have any land to belong to anymore.”

Forgotten refugees

For the next week, the director will be presenting his film around Palestine. It is the first time that he is visiting the West Bank.

“I feel guilty of being here. I can enter this place with my French passport while my friends from the camp can’t”, he said.

At the same time, Salvatori-Sinz thinks it is good to show the film here. While the Palestinians abroad are focused on their right of return, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are preoccupied with their own problems.

“During all what was happening in Yarmouk, people here didn’t really mobilize to support the refugees”, he said.

For even some of the characters, watching the movie was an eye-opening experience.

“When Tasmeen saw the film, she came to me and said it was magnificent. But she also said that their lives looked really hard for an outsider,” Salvatori-Sinz said.

“I only wish I could have presented the film with the shebab, but this never happened. Again, I’m becoming successful because of the movie while they are struggling to create new lives in foreign countries. It’s not fair,” he said.

The French director is currently working on two movies, one of which will follow the destinies of the shebab. For him, it is important to make their stories remembered: The young Palestinians might not have the right to return, but at least they have the right to exist.


The Franco-Arab film festival continues until the 15th of June 2014. Screenings are organized in Bethlehem, Gaza, Hebron, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Ramallah. Visit the Facebook page of the event here: 

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