Home for Sudan-born Ashwaq is a tiny, one-bedroom flat she shares with her baby son in Cairo. It’s a lonely and precarious existence. A long way from the one she dreamed of when she graduated in psychology and pre-school education, and came to Egypt in search of work.
Tears flow as this young woman talks to the makers of SAT-7 documentary series Refugee Tales and tells how different life has been from her bright career hopes.
Now, despite her university qualifications, she can only find work as a home help. The money she earns is barely enough to support herself and her young son. She says she worries every month about paying the rent and making ends meet. Instead of offering support or friendship, neighbours and people in the street harass her because she is a single mother.
But Ashwaq resolves to remain joyful. “I try to bring joy to myself with the simple things that I have. I thank the Lord for my son and my health. I try not to focus on what I don’t have so I don’t become sad. It is a blessing to be healthy and have inner peace. I live in peace with myself.”
She pauses and says, “I think I have become brave because of the difficult things I have gone through and faced alone. They haven’t dragged me down. I still dream.”
Ashwaq’s story is a stark example of the hardships experienced by vulnerable migrants and refugees everywhere. Hers is one of 25 short documentaries SAT-7 filmed in Egypt for a series entitled Refugee Tales. The many people interviewed in the series are of all ages, from children to grandparents, and they come from Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and Eritrea.
They recount painful stories of family members separated, killed, jailed, and disappeared; of homes bombed, of surviving rape, kidnap and torture. In their adopted country, many faced fresh obstacles such as barriers in the workplace, xenophobia, and difficulties in enrolling their children in schools.
But, like Ashwaq’s story, all of these short films show tenacity and resilience. They include the stories of two sisters who started a skills and learning foundation for Syrian and local women; a Syrian musician who has begun choirs, runs music therapy and has opened a café; and a young Syrian woman who became involved in running integration workshops for fellow refugees when she was just 15.
Refugee Tales is part of a wider SAT-7 project, funded by the Norwegian Mission Society, to promote the rights of marginalised people in the Arab world. It aims to create awareness and empathy and strengthen integration and peaceful coexistence.
A key aim within this has been to stimulate public conversations. So instead of screening the programmes on TV, SAT-7 deliberately posted Refugee Tales on its social media platforms with a strong invitation to viewers to comment and share their thoughts and reactions.
It worked. The series achieved remarkable viewing levels with over half a million watching more than 30 seconds of a story and 227,000 watching an episode in full. Most importantly, there was an outpouring of positive messages on social media. Encouraging messages, prayers and even offers of practical and financial help showed how deeply viewers were impacted.
Ashwaq’s story alone prompted an astonishing 583 comments. A viewer in Algeria encouraged: “Don’t despair, sister, trust God and draw close to Him in prayer and you will be released, God willing, very soon.”
Another viewer said, “You are the bravest woman I have ever seen and the most optimistic, God bless.” A third commented, “You are a hero; God is with you, and He will never abandon you.”
The video that was seen by the largest number of people and triggered some 4,300 reactions, comments and shares was the story of Nashwan from Iraq. In 2014 his business was flourishing and he owned a house and several cars. But work done for the army and police made him a target when so-called Islamic State overran his area. The jihadists stormed his house and threatened to kill him and his family. Like thousands of others, the family hastily fled to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.
More recently, they moved to Egypt where the family still face many obstacles. Iraqis in the country struggle to secure residential papers. As a result, Nashwan’s four daughters have been unable to enroll in school. Finding suitable work has also been impossible because of difficulties in obtaining a work permit.
After hearing the family’s traumatic story and seeing how close-knit they are, many viewers posted messages of encouragement and at least two offered their phone numbers for direct contact and support.
Life in these refugees’ adopted countries remains an uphill struggle for many but, through watching their stories, series producer Rafik George believes that many will empathise and take action to provide assistance.
He asks us to pray for the 25 individuals and families whose stories are told in this series and give thanks for the awareness it is raising.
He adds: “Please ask that the half a million or more who watched the series will follow the Bible’s command to love the strangers in their midst” (Deuteronomy 110:18; Matthew 25:35).
Our Spring 2022 Insight magazine has more articles on how SAT-7 is supporting displaced people in the Middle East and North Africa, and on how exiled Christians are ministering through SAT-7 to those who remain. Read it here.