In 2016, Zain al-Rafeea was an impoverished delivery boy, one of the thousands of Syrian refugees living in the crowded outskirts of Beirut, Lebanon. Having never gone to school, he could not write his name.
Today, the 14-year-old is the star of the Oscar-nominated film “Capernaum” — an opus on disenfranchisement and poverty by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. The film’s name, which references a biblical village, has come to mean “chaos,” but it also carried the connotation of miracles — both of which have appeared in Zain's life.
Perhaps the greatest miracle in Zain's story: he and his family were resettled in Norway six months ago. He and his three siblings are now going to school for the first time in his life.
When Zain spoke to The World, he was preparing to travel with the “Capernaum” team to California for the Oscars ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 24. Having already accompanied the cast to Los Angeles, New York and Cannes, he was excited about this new trip — but not because of the red-carpet event.
“Every time we travel, we go to the zoo,” he said. “And once I go back to America, I will go to the zoo again.”
Unlike the character he plays in the film, Zain is getting a second chance at childhood.
The film’s young protagonist, also named Zain, is Lebanese but legally stateless because his parents didn’t have the money to register his birth. Zain sues his parents for having given birth to him though they couldn't take care of him. It doesn't end so well for him.
In real life, Zain is Syrian, and his family came to Lebanon fleeing war. The family is from Daraa in southern Syria, where authorities crushed mass protests against the Syrian regime in 2011. In early 2012, as the unrest escalated into armed conflict, the family escaped to Lebanon, Zain’s father Ali al-Rafeea said.
In Beirut they found refuge from the war but struggled to get by with the high cost of living and lack of stable work. Bureaucratic obstacles (like the need for a Lebanese sponsor for residency and work authorization) left them without legal residency — along with the majority of Syrian refugees in the country. Lebanese officials, wary that Syrian refugees would settle permanently in the country, have not allowed official refugee camps, and bar Syrians from working in all sectors except construction, agriculture and cleaning.
“The economic situation was very tiring,” Ali al-Rafeea said. “I was working day and night to make the rent and take care of my children, for the level of life to be at least at the minimum.”
By the time Labaki’s casting director came across then-12-year-old Zain playing in the street with some friends in Beirut’s Corniche al Mazraa neighborhood in 2016, Zain was also working to help support the family. As they left Syria when he was a little boy, Zain never went to school. Though he had never acted before, he drew on his experiences to help create the film’s dialogue.
“From the moment I saw Zain, I felt there was something bigger than us that was pushing us to make this film. ... It was as if I was almost destined to see him. When I saw him, I thought, ‘It’s impossible for this child to have only this destiny. It’s impossible for a child that is so clever and has so much potential to just have this kind of future in the slums.’”
“From the moment I saw Zain, I felt there was something bigger than us that was pushing us to make this film,” Labaki told The World. “It was as if I was almost destined to see him. When I saw him, I thought, ‘It’s impossible for this child to have only this destiny. It’s impossible for a child that is so clever and has so much potential to just have this kind of future in the slums.’”
Zain’s father said he believes the attention the film brought to their case helped them on the path to resettlement. But the family might have reached Norway regardless. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said resettlement had been in the works before Zain’s involvement in the film.
“The resettlement process can be quite lengthy, which was the case for Zain’s family,” she said. “UNHCR had already submitted their file for resettlement — because they met the resettlement criteria — when we learned that he had a role in an upcoming movie.”
Whatever the reasons, the family has joined a small and shrinking number of refugees who are granted permanent asylum in a third country each year.
Of the approximately 950,000 registered Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, only 9,372 Syrian were resettled in a third country in 2018 — less than 1 percent of the total refugee population. That number represented a decrease from a high of 18,279 Syrian refugees resettled from Lebanon in 2016 and 12,095 in 2017. Globally, the numbers have also decreased.
“This lack of political will to share the responsibility has resulted in refugees being left in increasingly protracted situations with no solutions in sight. ... I think that refugees in Lebanon feel this open-ended challenge more than in many other places, with the host country clearly signaling that they are not a ‘country of asylum’ — thus local integration is off the table – and with a drastic drop in resettlement numbers from Lebanon.”
Maja Janmyr, a professor of international migration law at the University of Oslo, said shrinking resettlement numbers are a result of “rising anti-immigrant sentiments” worldwide. Most significantly, the US, which had previously been the largest country of resettlement, has dramatically cut its annual refugee quotas since the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017. Although some new countries have begun to accept refugees for resettlement, Janmyr said, it has not been enough to fill the gap.
In the meantime, falling resettlement numbers along with flagging international aid may be feeding into an increasing push for repatriation from countries like Lebanon. The tiny country is hosting the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Political leaders have increasingly called for the Syrians to return to their country.
“This lack of political will to share the responsibility has resulted in refugees being left in increasingly protracted situations with no solutions in sight,” said Janmyr, who has extensively studied the situation of refugees in Lebanon. “I think that refugees in Lebanon feel this open-ended challenge more than in many other places, with the host country clearly signaling that they are not a ‘country of asylum’ — thus local integration is off the table — and with a drastic drop in resettlement numbers from Lebanon.”
For those still able to reach it, resettlement can offer hope.
Zain cried when he left his cousins and friends behind in Beirut. But when his family arrived at their new house in the town of Hammerfest in northern Norway, Labaki said, he called her on video chat and rushed through the family’s new home to show her the stairs, the garden, the view of the sea, and his room with a bed instead of a sleeping mat on the floor.
“They are paying the highest price for our faults, for our failing systems. ... We have created this system — we have created this chaos for them, and we really have failed them on every level. So we can’t go on just saying we’ll never be able to do anything about it.”
Zain said the language is “a bit hard,” but he has already picked up enough to make some Norwegian friends.
“Norway is very beautiful, and the people are kind, and everything is beautiful in Norway — even school is beautiful,” he said.
His father, Ali al-Rafeea, said the film and resettlement have given the family a chance at the future that they had almost given up on.
“I wasn’t seeing any future for my children, nor was I able to imagine what might happen in the next period,” he said. “Now we can return to dreaming that they might become engineers or teachers or doctors. Why? Because the people are going to help them arrive to what they want to be. But before, this dream did not exist.”
The real-life Zain’s fate has so far turned out to be more hopeful than that of his film counterpart and of many children like him on the streets of Beirut and elsewhere. Labaki said whatever happens at the Oscars, she plans to advocate in Lebanon for legal reforms to improve the lives of stateless and disenfranchised children.
“They are paying the highest price for our faults, for our failing systems,” she said. “We have created this system — we have created this chaos for them, and we really have failed them on every level. So we can’t go on just saying we’ll never be able to do anything about it.”