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Updated On: Tuesday, 20 August 2019

?? ? Beirut's Refugee Artists | Al Jazeera World

2018-12-05 | ?? ? Beirut's Refugee Artists | Al Jazeera World

Filmmaker: Abdullah Chhadeh

The ongoing conflict in Syria has forced not only Syrians, but Iraqis and Palestinian refugees out of the country and into Lebanon in search of safety.

Sitting in a Beirut cafe, Syrian screenwriter Najeeb Nseir is unable to accept being labelled a refugee.

"I tell people I'm a tourist," he says.

"The idea of the refugee is humiliating ... seeking refuge in Arab countries is the humiliating thing."

He remembers a time when Syria was home to refugees from around the Middle East but says "no one had imagined Syrians would become refugees."

The massive influx of millions of refugees into Europe in 2015 sparked a global rise in far-right anti-immigration movements, claiming to fight for a way of life they believe to be under threat. Lebanon has not been immune to that trend, meaning the Lebanese perspective is increasingly one of 'Lebanese first'.

"Beirut's no longer a welcoming city," says Palestinian filmmaker Fajr Yacoub, who confesses he copes with displacement "by making films and writing novels."

His parents fled Haifa in 1948 and he grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp Syria. He's now managing to survive as a fiction and documentary filmmaker and while his work has won recognition, he laments, "once it [Beirut] ignited creativity of certain Palestinian artists."

War, conflict and displacement force people like Fajr to reimagine their notion of 'homeland'. Unlike Syrians and Iraqi refugees who may eventually return home, "Palestinians will always be refugees" because "Palestine doesn't exist," says Fajr.

Forced to accept that he'll never return to the Palestine of his parents, he maintains that "a homeland is no longer defined by geographical borders or a place where my parents lived, my father grew up or my granddad played ... you take [it] with you wherever you go."

Iraqi visual artist Salam Omar has also let go of a physical concept of a homeland.

"I've invented a new homeland in my imagination," explains Salam. "Now, my homeland is my new and old friends in Beirut or in exile."

Omar escaped the sectarian fighting in post-invasion Iraq and hoped to make Syria his permanent home.

"It was very hard to leave my house in Syria because ... the dream was big," says the teary-eyed 60-year old. "I arranged my paintings and created an art gallery at home. I dreamt of inviting my friends and Arab artists."

For Omar, emigrating a second time has been tougher than leaving Iraq, but he does find artistic expression, experimenting with silk-screen designs on urban building facades. He believes artists have a duty to record and archive the events around them. Connecting to others around the world in these modern times is easy, so "I'm not isolated from the world".

In the 1970s and 1980s, Lebanon and Beirut became bywords for chaos and destruction. It's often been said that Lebanon is a battleground for other countries' proxy wars - and according to the latest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures, one in four people living in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee.

Around 45,000 Palestinians from Syria have now sought refuge in Lebanon, joining the estimated 400,000 Palestinian refugees already living in the country. UNHCR says Iraqi refugees in Lebanon are just under 30,000. The tensions are real, as well as the pressure on the infrastructure of housing, water, education and health in a small country barely able to provide for its five million citizens.

Since the making of this film, Fajr Yacoub has moved from Beirut to Sweden, making him a refugee thrice over. He's taking Swedish-language classes and is due to become a Swedish citizen in 10 months.

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