When a Haircut Turns into a Priceless Piece of Community
In this short doc, Syrian refugee camp barbers are attempting to make a living in an unlivable situation.
“Haircuts are a fundamental part of life,” says Samer Al-Sees. He’s the subject of Growing Home, a short documentary about barbershops in Al Zaatari, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Located in Jordan, near the border of Syria, the camp currently houses more than 80,000 refugees.
Refugee camps are meant to be temporary spaces, but as the war in Syria rages on, Al Zaatari is becoming a permanent fixture in Jordan. Displaced by the conflict, Syrians have forged a new home in exile, building their own food markets, coffee shops, restaurants, and clothing stores within the camp. Growing Home, which premiered at last month’s United Nations Association Film Festival, documents the barbers who’ve set up shop in Al Zaatari, attempting to make a living in an unlivable situation. Documentary filmmaker Faisal Attrache shot the footage in August 2013, after a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.
“At the time, 200,000 people were there,” says Attrache. “As soon as you get in, it breaks down your impressions of what a refugee camp is or should be like.”
Since Syrians first revolted against the government of Bashar Al-Assad in 2011, more than 3.2 million people have fled the country. For many, the first stop has been Al Zaatari. But the camp, once a haphazard assembly of tents, has since become a bustling city of concrete, a fact that struck Attrache when he returned to Al Zaatari seven months after first shooting the film. The transformation from short-term refuge to bustling municipality symbolized, for Attrache, the protracted nature of the violence in Syria and how indelibly it had changed Syrian society. The new permanent structures that dotted the camp represented a finality to the refugees’ situation.
“There was a lot of concrete, a lot of barbed wire,” says Attrache. “A lot of the administrative buildings now had big walls around them with barbed wire, where at first it was just fences.”
In the documentary, Attrache captures vivid images of daily life in the camps. In footage taken in Al-Sees’ home, the barber gestures toward his walls, where he’s precariously taped up photos of blossoming flowers and verdant landscapes. “These are paintings, sort of, for our mental well-being,” he tells the camera. In the makeshift bathroom, he’s set up concrete blocks to delineate a bathing area and a curtain hangs around the toilet.
“People are just trying to bring in whatever sense of normality that they had in their normal life in Syria and apply that to the camp,” says Attrache. “It fundamentally comes down to living in dignity, living in a situation that’s acceptable, that you’re comfortable living in.”
The barbershops represent just some of many efforts by the camp’s residents to recreate the communal spaces they lost when they left their cities. There are mosques, shisha (hookah) shops, and lively open-air fruit and vegetable markets. But barbershops have always been special places for socializing in Arab communities. Men may visit two to three times a week, not only to get their haircut and beards trimmed, but also to get updates on goings-on in the community.
“It’s about meeting people, seeing people, asking them what’s going on in their lives,” says Attrache. “I think a barber is very in tune to the pulse of the community surrounding him. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to focus on barbers.”
When Attrache initially met Al-Sees, he didn’t count on making him the subject of the documentary. But when Al-Sees invited Attrache and the film crew over to his home, they were charmed by his personality, and the barber emerged as the film’s clear star. The barbershops, after all, represent an attempt to put down new roots where there are none. As the war continues with no clear resolution in sight, this diaspora community continues to grow more cohesive. Still, the refugees resist the idea that they may be here for much longer, although they now lay the foundations of their Al Zaatari homes with concrete. Like many Syrians in the camp, Al-Sees speaks of going back home to Syria frequently.
“Even if Samer [Al-Sees] grows old in the camp, he will always be adamant about returning to his home,” says Attrache. “It’s a fundamental characteristic of the refugee regardless of conflict or situation. They might not accept that they may never return.”