Through Our Eyes

In his powerful film, Through Our Eyes, Samir Mehanovic, documents the experiences of Syrian refugees and reflects on how their journeys mirror his own search for safety.

By Shona McCallum and Izzy Taylor, Refugee Festival Scotland volunteers

On the evening of Tuesday 20 June, we attended a very moving screening of Samir Mehanovic’s documentary Through Our Eyes. This event was hosted by Helen Stanes from Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet), a group from the University of Glasgow.

The documentary consists of three years’ worth of filming. It follows the journeys of a number of Syrian refugees – revealing why and how they left their homelands, the challenges they face, where they settled, and their dreams for the future.

Interestingly, the documentary incorporates archive footage from Samir’s own experiences, since coming from Bosnia to Scotland as a refugee in 1995. He explains that in the process of setting out to tell the story of Syrian refugees, he realised he was also telling the story of his own war and journey here.

The film opens in Lebanon, where Samir visits a school run by and for Syrian refugees. Most pupil live in camps, and having been born outside of their home country, are completely stateless. Here, he speaks to teachers about their lives. They explain the precarious situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which, in the midst of its own crises, has not welcomed them. One teacher is deeply concerned for her young students, saying: “There’s no hope of anything here in Lebanon.”

Samir also visits some UN-run camps on the Lebanon-Syria border, where life is perilous and painful. The people he speaks to explain that, while aid is being sent, much of it does not reach them. Another teacher complains that: “All the world does is send weapons, send bombs”.

He also speaks with people who had left the region, and are in border areas in South-Eastern Europe. Again, their experiences are harrowing. Most have come on boats from Turkey, “the death ride” as one of them names it. It is challenging to reflect that those who have made this journey are considered privileged by those in camps in Lebanon, who don’t have the funds to do so.

He follows two particular individuals from here. The first is a father, journeying with his wife and young son, who is deeply angry and disillusioned with their treatment. Palestinian by birth, but displaced again from Syria, his whole life had been determined by the failings of the powerful to safeguard him and his family.

The second is a young man, who is travelling alone and is more optimistic despite his traumas in Syria. He wants to learn new languages, since this enables you to see the world ‘through another’s eyes’ – the inspiration for the documentary’s title. He said “when you live in Syria you see differently” and his aspirations are modest: a home, a job, and peace.

Towards the end of the film, Samir re-visits them both after they resettle in Germany. They have begun to construct different lives, with challenges along the way but are overall contentment.

While some have found new lives, for many it is the hope for their home country which fuels them. Many of those interviewed, however, aspire to return home: “We are looking for the day that we will go back to Syria.”

Throughout, we also get to know Samir’s experience. He came to Scotland in 1995 after being invited to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe. Having made it to the UK, he and his theatre group never left. Samir went to the Scottish Refugee Council and claimed asylum. He was resettled to Niddrie, a deprived area of Edinburgh ironically named ‘Little Bosnia’ by locals – a reference to the violence there.

He, like those he filmed, knows the experience of displacement and estrangement from your home. He has experienced a similar journey, and knows the pains of integration and re-establishing a life in a new place which isn’t always welcoming. It is clear that he has reconciled his own experiences, and seen them afresh, through making this film.

It is also clear that the documentary was a way of doing justice to his story, their story, and to all those who have fled war and persecution. The film is dedicated to: “Those who didn’t make it”, a sombre reminder of the risk and trauma experienced by refugees in their attempts to find safety, and the continued challenges if or when they do.

In a very emotional scene, the Palestinian-Syrian refugee complains bitterly that when he was young, his father told him the UN ensured welcome for any Palestinian refugee, in any country. He feels failed by the powerful institution which promised protection. The experience of Palestinians is eerily reminiscent of that of Bosnian Muslims – the 1995 Srebrenica massacre occurred in a UN-mandated safe zone.

Overall, this is not necessarily a hopeful film, but it is a truthful one. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘hope’, but it is important to hold space for the experiences of refugees and acknowledge that stories rooted in conflicts and disasters can be painful and difficult. While this is our imperfect present, we must always hope for a better future.

In the touching words of a musician interviewed by Samir, there is an important reminder: “Once humanity embraces itself, there won’t be any refugees.”