After Spring: Bethlehem Community Film Series Confronts the Syrian Refugee Crisis

On Tuesday, March 21st, South Side Bethlehem residents packed the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas to view the documentary After Spring. The documentary portrays the five-year odyssey of Syrian refugees settled in and around one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Zaatari, Jordan. Organized through Lehigh University’s MDHI-funded Communities Film Series 2017 with its exigent focus on migration, the documentary provides a moving and detailed reflection on day-to-day life in a refugee camp.  

Executively produced by former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, After Spring approaches its subject, the Zaatari refugee camp, through the eyes of Syrian refugees, refugee social workers, and UN coordinators.  In particular, the documentary follows the daily activities of the children in the camp and the desperate activity of their parents to keep their loved ones from succumbing to hopelessness and despair.  With few educational resources and mourning the loss of their homes and friends, the children play soccer, take care of siblings, and watch the Syrian civil war on small TVs in their tents or caravans.  Sadly, this situation has become the new normal for these children, many of whom have grown up in the Zaatari camp.  When asked about the situation, Raghad, an energetic and thoughtful teenager who paints her sister’s nails and helps her pregnant mother clean the caravan, reflects with detachment on the deteriorating situation in Syria, remarking that “I don’t expect to ever go home again.”

The film provides a stark, humanizing face to the shocking statistics associated with the situation. For instance:

  • This crisis represents the largest concentration of displaced populations since World War 2.
  • Of the 650,000 Syrian refugees, only 150,000 have re-populated to Zaatari.  The rest of the refugees are considered a “lost population” and are dispersed throughout Europe and the Middle East. This lost population moves weekly to escape the authorities and their numbers are dwindling as the sick and elderly succumb to starvation and disease.  
  • In the five years since the camp was created, there have been 1,000 births, with 2,000 births rapidly approaching.
  • Zaatari has the largest social media presence of any refugee camp, being among the first to use a dynamic Twitter feed to celebrate its accomplishments and remind the world that it still requires support in the form of food, clothing (Red Sox jerseys are ubiquitous among the camp), and medicine.  
Screenshot of the Zaatari Refugee Camp Twitter page with over 18,000 followers and active since 2013.

When the film concluded, Michael Kramp, a Lehigh professor of English and co-coordinator of the Communities Film Series along with Nick Sawicki, introduced a Q&A session with South Side residents and Lehigh students. The discussion focused upon how attendees can raise awareness about and address the challenges facing refugee populations. For the first time in my experience, nobody left after the film. Instead, almost everyone remained for the 45-minute talkback session.  

Michael Kramp fields questions during the Q&A.

Tim Daly, Director of Neighborhood Health Center of the Lehigh Valley and partner with Bethany Christian Services, the primary refugee resource in Allentown, commented on the immense scale of the crisis and lamented that many refugees repopulated in the West (and these are the lucky ones) “suffer from trauma and other psychological conditions, but turn down treatment because of stigmas about mental disorders.”  

Katie Morris, a junior at Lehigh majoring in journalism and member of “No Lost Generation,” a program created by Lehigh undergraduates to provide aid for refugees and advocate for human rights issues, commented on the film’s success at humanizing a situation that many Americans do not understand. She also discussed how No Lost Generation had worked with “the NewComer Academy in Allentown to provide at least one year of schooling for refugees in grades 7 through 12.”  

Sarah Stanlick, the Director of Lehigh University’s Center for Community Engagement, shared her concern that the documentary might leave some feeling helpless at the immense scale of the tragedy. “This documentary can bring about feelings of unsettledness,” she said, “and make us wonder ‘what do we do’? Thankfully, we have a community partner that is working on the front lines and who has helped us to focus our energy on meaningful, ethical engagement.”

Many audience members spoke with passion about their experiences volunteering locally with refugee organizations in the Lehigh Valley or their experiences at refugee camps abroad. One woman, who had volunteered at Zaatari, suggested that the largest problem at that camp is the lack of quality teachers and education equipment.  Katie referred her (and us) to the great work done by the RUMIE Initiative, which seeks to collect educational tablets for refugees.

Younger audience members spoke with equal passion about their interest in volunteering and helping with these issues.  Tim, Katie, and Sarah, all directed them towards numerous local organizations, such as the Church of the Mediator. Sarah passed out a flyer listing volunteer resources as the viewers slowly left the theater. As they did so, many exchanged information with others in their aisle and the experts promising to do anything they could to help the refugee populations in Bethlehem and throughout the greater Lehigh Valley.

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