Exhibition highlights the endless struggle for Syrian refugees

Lina Khatib recorded videos for 24 hours on a Beirut street where many homeless Syrians live. (Supplied)
Updated 28 September 2018
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Exhibition highlights the endless struggle for Syrian refugees

  • The world is turning away from millions left stranded by the situation in Syria
  • 24 Hours on Hamra Street explores the plight of Syrian refugees homeless in Beirut

LONDON: Suffering has become the status quo in Syria but the casualties of its seven-year conflict are drifting from the public eye.

The world’s attention span dwindled with the decline of Daesh in the region and Syria is increasingly seen as just another Middle East crisis, warned Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

“The military defeat of ISIS largely contributed to a perception that the story is over for Syria and everything else that happens is just routine,” she told Arab News. But for millions forced to flee their war-torn country, the struggle is far from over.

On the streets of Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, people have grown accustomed to the sight of homeless Syrians huddled in doorways and women with young children shivering on blankets at the side of the road. 

Speaking at the launch of her new video art exhibition, 24 Hours on Hamra Street in London on Thursday, Khatib spelled out the dangers of compassion fatigue and the routinisation through which conflict in the Middle East – particularly events in Syria – are often perceived. 

“I felt that people have started to think of conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East as normal and this is very disturbing because it dehumanizes both the victims in the conflict and also the people who are ignoring these conflicts.” 

Her footage, shot over 24 continuous hours on Hamra Street in Beirut, brings the viewer’s gaze down to ground level, where those left begging by the loss of their homes in Syria scrape a living on occasional handouts from passersby.

Khatib, who is also a visual artist, used her phone camera to record a few minutes every hour on the busy shopping street, where pedestrians walk past, oblivious to those whose lives have been placed on hold here.

“This is about the human dimension,” she said during a panel discussion entitled Keep your eyes set on Syria. “I feel like I could write a whole book asking for empathy but it’s not going to be as effective as the exhibition upstairs.” 

She also collaborated with Damascus-based heavy metal band Maysaloon to produce a short documentary chronicling their determination and defiance as young musicians finding a voice amid the chaos of war. “Cultural expression is another avenue for discussing what Syria is going through today,” she said.

The video installation, which is part of Chatham House's Syria From Within project, reminds viewers of the human cost of a conflict that has forced 5.5 million people to flee Syria and displaced a further 6.6 million inside the country since 2011, according to The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

In the past year, 50,000 refugees have returned home from Lebanon, despite concerns over their safety. The Lebanese government says the country can no longer cope with hosting an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and is pushing ahead with a controversial programme to facilitate returns.

“Since the beginning they considered the refugees as visitors,” said Fadi Hallisso, CEO of Basmeh and Zeitooneh, an NGO working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. “Many politicians are misleading the public by pretending that the war has ended in Syria and now it is time for the refugees to return.” 

As a result, he said, donations are drying up despite the enormous need for ongoing compassion and support.  

The exhibition at P21 Gallery in London runs until Oct. 5, 2018.


Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

Updated 20 July 2019
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Emirati astronaut prepares to join elite Arab space club

  • Hazza Al-Mansoori 'living a dream' as he and backup astronaut train for space mission in September
  • Soyuz-MS 15 launch could be the beginning of a bold new era of Arab exploration of space

DUBAI: More than 30 years after an Arab first journeyed into space, an  Emirati is preparing to become the latest Arab space traveler when he joins a team of astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) in September.

For months, Hazza Al-Mansoori and backup pilot Sultan Al-Neyadi have been undergoing intensive training in Russia, Germany and the US to prepare for the mission. The first Emirati to travel into space will make the historic journey on board a Soyuz-MS 15 spacecraft due to take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Sept. 25.

During the eight-day mission, he will conduct a tour of the ISS for Arabic viewers on Earth and carry out 15 experiments for the Science in Space schools competition conducted by Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center.

The crew, who will include an American and a Russian, are allowed to take up to 1 kg of personal items with them on the mission.

“I will take my family photo and share the experience of being in space with them,” Al-Mansoori said. There will also be an image of Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s founding father, meeting American astronauts in 1976.

“I am also going to take an Emirati flag. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.”

‘I will take an Emirati flag into space. I am living my dream and want to give something back to my country.’

Emirati astronaut Hazza Al-Mansoori

Al-Mansoori will join an elite space club comprising Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman and Syria’s Muhammed Faris. Prince Sultan became the first Arab to travel to space as part of space shuttle Discovery’s crew in 1985. Faris was a crew member of USSR’s Soyuz spacecraft in 1987.

The Emirati astronaut is aware that history is resting on his shoulders. Speaking to the media recently during his training program in Houston, Al-Mansoori  said it is a huge personal honor to be the first Emirati chosen for space exploration.

“I’m excited about the whole mission, but especially to experience the microgravity and be living in the ISS, and conducting daily experiments and working with the amazing group on board,” he said.

Al-Mansoori and Al-Neyadi have been undergoing rigorous training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The program includes familiarization with NASA equipment on board the space station, and handling emergency situations, such as ammonia gas leaks and depressurization.

The Emiratis have been trained to fend for themselves if the return goes off course and they land in the wilderness of Russia.

Speaking of the Soyuz-MS 15 mission, Yousuf Al-Shaibani, director general of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center, said: “We strive to see the UAE Astronaut Program achieve its objective of preparing generations of Emiratis who will contribute to enhancing the country’s position in space science and research to serve the ambitious aspirations aimed at building a national knowledge-based economy.”

The September launch could prove to be the beginning of a bold new era for Arabs and space. Al-Neyadi, the backup pilot, has been promised a seat on a future mission, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are drawing up ambitious plans for the development of the region’s space industry.