Film changes the life of Syrian refugee boy and his family

Discovered by film director Nadine Labaki in the streets of Beirut, Zain Al Rafeaa and his family find new beginning in Norway.

Director Nadine Labaki and Syrian refugee lead actor Zain Al Rafeea filming Capernaum.  © Sony Pictures Classics / Fares Sokhon

NEW YORK – At 12, Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeaa barely knew how to write his name. He was discovered by Lebanese film director Nadine Labaki in the streets of Beirut, who cast him to star in her new film Capernaum. Today, Zain and his family have been resettled to Norway, where they live in a house overseeing the sea and Zain plays with reindeer in the forest. 

Until three months ago, Zain’s life shared similarities to the character he plays in Capernaum, the story an undocumented Lebanese boy fighting to survive poverty and marginalization while helping other displaced people living in the slums of Beirut. He was living below the poverty line, like many other Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities.

The film has been selected as Lebanon’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Academy Awards and received the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. This week UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, co-sponsored a screening of the film in New York City.

“To be resettled in a third country, and having this kind of life – it truly is a new beginning.”

Shortly after coming back from Cannes, the Al Rafeaa family received an official letter from UNHCR informing them that they were going to be resettled in Norway, a process that started in 2016. 

They moved to the Nordic country in August 2018. Still sleepy and jet-lagged, Zain – now 14 years old – explained at the New York screening what a regular day looks like for him today: he and his siblings wake up early in the morning to catch the bus to school, which starts at 8 a.m.

“To be resettled in a third country, and having this kind of life – it truly is a new beginning,” said Labaki, the film director, during the screening.

“If he stayed in the conditions he was in, I think there was a big chance that Zain was going to be facing some kind trouble in life,” she added.

Zain and his family arrived in Lebanon in 2012, after fleeing war in their home town of Daraa in southern Syria. Living in one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Beirut, Zain could not attend school and was often exposed to drugs and violence.

Ninette Kelley, director of UNHCR New York office; Ben Stiller, actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador; Zain Al Rafeea, actor and Syrian refugee; and Nadine Labaki, film director, during a screening of Capernaum in New York.   © StarPix for Sony Pictures Classics / Marion Curtis

Lebanon – which has a population of four million people – is currently hosting one million Syrian refugees. 

“The Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon is part of our daily lives now,” Labaki said. “You can imagine how big the responsibility and the burden is for the Lebanese community, which is also facing its own economic problems.”

Almost nine in 10 of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, where they often live in remote or underserved areas with significant development challenges. 

In the case of Lebanon, one of the most visible ways this challenge materialized in was the increasing number of children on the streets, both Lebanese and Syrian.

“They are living parallel lives on the margins of our societies, they become invisible to us,” Labaki said about the inspiration to make Capernaum. “What happens in their heads when they feel so invisible? How does it feel to be completely invisible in the eyes of society? I wanted to understand.”

Labaki worked with non-professional actors, four of whom were refugees. They filmed for over six months, so that they could adapt to acting on camera. 

“They are living parallel lives on the margins of our societies, they become invisible to us.”

During the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, between 2011 and 2015, Lebanon was taking 10,000 refugees from the neighbouring country per week, Ninette Kelley explained. She was the UNHCR Representative in Lebanon during the crisis and is now the Director of its New York office. 

“We need to help Lebanon manage what is an unprecedented influx of people,” said Kelley at the screening. “The way we do that is we encourage not just provision of assistance to refugees, but help their school systems, their medical systems; so that we can provide not just support for refugees but also the communities that are helping the refugees.”

Resettlement is another solution, but currently only 1 per cent of refugees worldwide have had access to that opportunity.

“Now [resettlement] is not happening to a great degree but when it happens, you can see how it changed Zain’s life,” Kelley added. “Who doesn’t want to be part of that story?” 

Labaki highlighted the complete shift resettlement brought to Zain’s life: “I think he truly deserves it. He is a miracle boy. He has so much potential, so much to give, and so much wisdom.”

In his introduction, actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stiller praised Zain’s performance: “It is really one of the best actors I’ve ever seen on film. It’s just an amazing performance.”

“It’s not a light film,” he added. “But it illuminates this human story that is going on in the world right now.” 

Labaki, like many others in the theater, wished there could be more “happy new beginnings” like Zain’s.