Born in Syria: What the Children Show Us

Contributed by Kathy Poh

Born in Syria (2016)

A film by Hernán Zin

The urgency and sense of danger that Born in Syria greets us with in its opening sequence of a dingy boat full of refugees landing on shore is almost cinematic: so tangible, and so different from our urban lifestyle. But this is reality for Syrian refugees, recent and real. In this documentary, director Hernán Zin follows seven children in their journeys out of Syria to Europe in a loosely linear narrative. We visit refugee camps in Turkey, Greece, and Hungary, wait pensively with families in Germany and Belgium as they settle legal matters, and accompany the children to school where they attempt to fit in with new peers. While this may feel like the set-up for a film aimed chiefly to evoke sympathy, Born in Syria is even-handed in its portrayals of the refugees’ situations and illuminates perspectives that news media seldom touch on.

Syrian refugees on an overcrowded boat in the sea

Born in Syria is more than just a documentary – it is also a beautifully shot film. Intercut with on-the-ground footage of refugees are aerial shots of the sea, seagulls flying, huge processions of refugees walking along railways, and a bird’s eye view of refugee camps. With the use of slow-motion, these scenes seem almost elegant, but one would be mistaken to regard the film’s shots as mere aesthetic. Being aware (even just vaguely) of the dangers of travelling on a small overcrowded boat, the beauty of a single boat in the sea becomes an eerie deception. An aerial shot of crowds becomes unnerving when we know that they are all refugees in a state of limbo. We are shown the massive scale of the Syrian refugee crisis without relying on an exposition of statistics or buzzwords.

But perhaps, more poignant than the cinematography are the perspectives offered through voiceovers by the refugee children we meet. It is often said that children view the world differently from how adults do, and this film shows it in a hopeful yet simultaneously heart-aching way. Children can find joy in the simplest things, like obtaining a scooter upon arrival at a new refugee camp. But it is also troubling to see how matter-of-factly these same children talk about the loss of possessions and even family members. War films often show us visceral pain and suffering; but how about the aftermath that people must live with? It is equally, if not more, moving to see war-hardened children who have been deprived of normal childhoods yet do not hold any resentment towards the world. These Syrian children provoke thoughts about our own reactions in unjust situations: Is retaliation the sole recourse, reserved for those with privilege and power? Might there be a lesson to be learnt from the big heartedness of these children?

One of the many children in a refugee camp in Budapest, Hungary.

The film’s stance seems to draw from these children’s attitudes, for it is reasonably fair in portraying the misfortunes and small fortunes of travelling refugees. Voiceovers extract samples from speeches made by European national leaders, and media reports; but there is no narrator and the framing of issues come purely from editing. In this aspect, Born in Syria is powerful. A memorable moment for me is an aerial shot of a ravaged Syria right after hearing the children recite fond poems about their beautiful home country. This scene is particularly striking as it is the only instance where the film uses footage of Syria – juxtaposed against the current plight of Syrian refugee children and their memories of a happy pre-war life.

What sets Born in Syria apart from media coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis is how thoroughly it follows the Syrians’ journeys. Many of us can express an understanding of the problems that refugees face in camps, dangers while travelling with smugglers, and the difficulties of finding a new home to settle in. But Zin’s film goes further to show us the language and social barriers faced by Syrian children trying to integrate into their new communities, and the difficulties encountered by their parents in trying to find a job. A key point is the recognition that the Syrian refugee crisis is also about the integration of Syrians into their newfound communities, which can be as challenging as the physical journey from Syria to Europe itself.

It is important to remember that this film is not about the civil war but the Syrian refugees, and that the refugee narrative presented is specific to the Syrians. Zin paints a relatable portrait that the Syrian refugees are as human as we are. Born in Syria’s goal seems to be for audiences to not only better understand the Syrian refugees’ situation, but to also recognise our own privileges. For me, this was a humbling watch, with the film succeeding in what it set out to do.



Kathy Poh is a second-year student at Yale-NUS College, majoring in arts and humanities. Last year, she was a member of the Singapore International Film Festival’s Youth Jury. Kathy also recently had her first taste of film production on a summer course at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and hopes to continue her pursuit of the craft.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

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