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Transit and turmoil

Filmmaker Elyas Salameh discusses the challenges facing Iraqi refugees in Lebanon

by Jeremy Arbid

Executive sat down with Elyas Salameh to discuss his documentary “Transit” and the situation of Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon.


With “Transit,” what were you asking yourself that convinced you to make the documentary?

I focused on Iraqi Christians because [they] still have their own identity and if they flee Iraq it will disappear. It’s not only a Christian identity; if they leave Iraq Christianity will remain one of the biggest religions in the world, but Mesopotamian identity and linguistic identity will disappear. Yes, I am a Christian, but to be honest it’s obvious that the Christians of Iraq are facing ethnic cleansing. I don’t want to be — as a human being — a witness to a culture going extinct. For that reason I decided to make this film.


Do the Iraqi Christian refugees face the same problems as other refugees, even with a sizeable Lebanese Christian population?

Yes of course. But Iraqi refugees in Lebanon don’t have status. Lebanon has not signed [the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees]; especially in comparison to the Syrian refugees — who have more freedoms — because we have [bilateral] agreements with Syria; but for the Iraqi refugees it’s completely different. Iraqi Christians face the same challenges [within] Christian society and there are a lot of hints [in the film] of how some churches and NGOs treat Iraqis. There is no doubt about it.


You’re telling us through the lives of one family that something bigger is happening; what’s the bigger picture you’re trying to convey?

This family is a mother and her seven children. She has a daughter still in Iraq, a daughter in France and another one in Sweden. She also has a son in the United States. And she’s been stuck in Lebanon with two daughters and one son waiting to go to a third country. It’s what all Iraqis have been facing. The whole family will be displaced.

When they leave Iraq their identity will disappear. First their language then their traditions. The family [will be split apart]. Especially when they leave to the United States, lots of divorce cases start to happen. You can see many old ladies in the film … how can they live in America or other European countries? They don’t know the language. Maybe the younger generations can adapt [assimilate into the culture] but how will the older generations?


You say in the film that there were approximately 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq before the fall of Saddam Hussein. What were the Christian population figures at the start of 2014, before events involving ISIS?

I don’t know the situation now, but it is a disaster. Because before there were still some Christians living in the Nineveh plains in the villages of Qaraqosh, Bartella and Batnaya, but now they are empty. Take for example Qaraqosh, the biggest city in the world for the Assyrian Catholics. They were around 52,000 and now virtually nobody [is] left there.


In making this documentary did you think about what kind of change the  film might instigate?

I decided to cast a child in the film — I know it’s not easy for the audience — he suffers from spina bifida. When an NGO found out that I filmed this child they got mad. But it’s representative of how the Iraqis are bleeding. I included it in the documentary how they give aid to the refugees. I don’t think it’s a secret. Refugees equal funds, and it’s sad to be some NGO’s investment. Many NGOs insist their projects have a lot of [oversight] from the UN or from the funder. But there are a lot of Lebanese ways — you know what I mean — the Lebanese way of working under the table.

Nobody has a solution like that [snaps fingers]. We have to highlight the problems first and then try to find solutions. Thousands of refugees are coming to centers for help. Go to any center and look at how they’re treated and then you will see for yourself what dignity is. Give the refugees dignity. Give them back their dignity and it will be enough for them. Because no refugee lives in dignity, especially in Lebanon. Nobody lives with dignity, nobody treats them well. Neither Syrian nor Iraqi.” 


To read more about Salameh’s documentary, click here.

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Jeremy Arbid

Jeremy is Executive's former economics and policy editor.

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