BAR ELIAS, Lebanon, July 1, (AFP): Crouched atop a blue minivan at a refugee camp near Lebanon’s eastern border, the Syrians act out tales of pain and hope with which their audience is all too familiar.
Gesticulating wildly and engaging with fellow refugees from the makeshift stage, the young actors perform in “The Caravan,” a collection of stories about the challenges of daily life as a Syrian in Lebanon.
One of them makes a revving noise while another pretends to sit on an invisible motorbike, as the narrator tells the story of a checkpoint at which only Syrian riders are stopped.
“When the Lebanese had their civil war (1975-1990), we hosted them with hospitality. Why are they acting this way with us? We are the same people,” says Ahmad, 20, the Syrian director of the play.
The young actors will use the van to take their show on tour to refugee camps in Lebanese cities and towns, and across its countryside.
More than one million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon from the devastating conflict in their homeland that has killed more than 280,000 people.
But once in Lebanon, they face a whole new set of challenges including finding adequate shelter, paying for residency papers, and feeling discriminated against by people in general.
Many Lebanese hold deeply rooted prejudices towards Syrians, some as a legacy of the Syrian army’s nearly 30-year presence in the country, and others out of fear they will take lower-income jobs and put people out of work.
In another scene from “The Caravan,” a distressed female narrator calls several Lebanese hospitals to find an incubator for her ailing newborn daughter.
But doctors and nurses pass her from one person to the next as she becomes increasingly desperate.
“This story really touched me because the woman was not able to hospitalise her daughter, who then died,” Ahmad says.
The final production is made up of eight plays chosen from nearly 300 that refugees came up with through storytelling workshops in Lebanon, says its artistic director Sabine Choucair.
The 34-year-old Lebanese woman hatched the idea for “The Caravan” as a way for Syrians to engage in group therapy.
“We talk a lot about the number of refugees, but rarely about the human side,” she says.
Choucair says the objective is to promote coexistence between Syrians and Lebanese, “but also with Iraqis, Palestinians, and other Syrians because these stories are about them, too.”
The project was sponsored by Beirut DC, an association that promotes Arab cinema, and was funded to the tune of 113,000 euros ($125,000) by the European Union and the UN children’s agency UNICEF.
In the camp near Bar Elias, one of the areas that hosts the most refugees in Lebanon, small children crowd around Choucair to ask when the next performance is.
The van that serves as the stage is decorated with orange, green, and red pieces of fabric, bits of wood, and plastic bottles.
A crowd of about 100 people, mostly women and children, sit cross-legged on the ground under the summer sun.
“Every day, I see Syria in my dreams. I’m with my neighbours at the market in Homs, once the war is over,” says Fatima, a mother of two toddlers.
“I love this play because it’s about us. It gives our children an idea of what we’re suffering.”
Ahmad’s mother says she discouraged him from taking part in the theatre production at first.
“At the beginning, I would tell my son that it was ridiculous to be in a play. But now I realise that it’s good that he can tell these kinds of stories,” says Hasna, 48.
She sits next to three of her friends, all dressed in black, and wipes away tears welling up in her eyes.
“We lost everything: children, brothers, sisters. My son has three children, and I haven’t heard anything about him since 2013,” she says, her voice cracking.
At the end of the play, a microphone is passed around the audience.
“We have to succeed in living together. We love the Lebanese and we would like them to love us too,” one woman declares as her fellow spectators clap.