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.
“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,” Nadin Labaki, the filmmaker said.
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.
Source: Pri network.