You don’t have to look far in the New Testament gospels to find moments of conversational sparring between Jesus and a member of the public elite—usually a religious leader, or a prominent community figure hell-bent on trying to trap him in his words. Luke chapter 10 accounts for such an incident: a lawyer, well versed in both the religious laws of the day and the laws of the state, cites a core commandment of his faith—the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself. But the openness of the mandate proves unsatisfactory to him, so he decides to square up: Just who is my neighbor? he asks of Jesus—half hoping, I imagine, that he wouldn’t get a real answer.
Salam Neighbor (“Hello Neighbor”) asks and answers this same question in a breath, though not in so many words, and much more indirectly. The documentary follows Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple, two American filmmakers who study the development of Zaatari, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, six miles from the Jordan-Syria border. Concerned about acquiring a more humanized understanding of the refugee crisis in that region, Ingrasci and Temple pack their things and travel to Jordan to live in the camp for one month—staying with the refugees there and learning their personal histories; studying the camp’s slow, arduous evolution into a semi-functioning city; and examining the ways that dominant Western perceptions of Middle Eastern refugees frequently traffic in fallacy, misinformation, and often, plain, inelegant ignorance.
The documentary is simply yet beautifully made. Watching it made me feel as though I’d swallowed a fistful of marbles, though not for any manipulation or cinematic pyrotechnics on the documentary’s part. Its starkness is a strength, as well as the tone it strikes: one of direct reportage of observational findings, though much of the time the film hands over the mouthpiece to the refugees themselves, carving space for them to speak, if and when they wish:
“I didn’t decide to leave Syria. I was forced to leave Syria,” says Ghassem, a young refugee who’d fled to Jordan with his wife and small children a few years before. “The first three or four months were so hard, without my faith in God, I would have committed suicide. I am thirty-five years old, and everything I’ve built in those years, I have lost.”
It’s worthwhile to avoid giving away too much about the film’s content as far as narratives go, for the varied stories of each of the refugees featured throughout the documentary do more than enough to speak for themselves and deserve better than summary. But if there’s a singular guiding concept into which Salam Neighbor can be essentialized, it’s that of community in the untethering of a refugee space—the paradoxical tension between longing for home, and longing to be granted the mercy of starting over, though one has been left with virtually nothing.
But the documentary poses a striking thematic irony that’s threaded throughout: two Westerners are the ones who’ve been welcomed into the community of a displaced people in the Middle East—men and women whose trauma, hardship, and violent misfortune have been in no way self inflicted, who are hanging on to life in absurd scarcity, especially in comparison to the disposable wealth of other nations such as ours. But this was, for me, among the most moving aspects of the Salam Neighbor: the promptness with which these refugees welcomed Ingrasci and Temple into their lives as friends, though they knew they would eventually have to leave the camp and return to the safety of their homes. This transience was no determinant for the quantity—or quality—of generosity and love that these Muslim neighbors would offer as hosts: “The Prophet says we must treat our neighbors right. You’re our neighbors.”
Just who is my neighbor? In Luke 10, Jesus responded to the question in his usual way of storytelling. This one may be familiar enough to be recognizable by name—the parable of the “Good Samaritan,” in which an outcast member of society shows kindness to someone who had no reason to expect it. The parable’s interpretations, I would argue, are virtually inexhaustible, but at its most literal it’s a story about a subversive upending of religious, cultural, and racial animosity in the midst of crisis. Our neighbors, we learn, are everyone and anyone we encounter—especially those in need, who have been harmed, whom we consider “other” than ourselves. We are to be compassionate. It’s a straightforward instruction.
The question of who we are and are not beholden to is ancient—older than us, far older than even this story, but time and antiquity have not diminished its relevance. In only the last month, “America first” has been a rallying cry across the country: from far-right and politically conservative spaces, from the sanctuaries (ironically) of some churches, to the White House itself where methodical demonization of the poor, the displaced, the different, the brown, and the “foreign” is one of the precious few stable components of the administration.
But even if a real distinction can be made, neither the private life of interpersonal relationships, nor the public life of political engagement give us much room to avoid confronting this underlying question: in our wealth of resources, how long will we continue to think that we can play God in the lives of others we deem alien? Salam Neighbor troubles all of this, bringing to the forefront the reality of the people and families whose need is far greater than can be readily conceived by most. It is far easier to think in detached abstraction than it is to sit and listen to a living, flesh-and-blood human being tell their story unfiltered, on film, for someone across the world to witness.
As Salam Neighbor draws to a close, we hear in narration: The world has been so wrapped up in the violence, we forget that dignity is what creates lasting peace. How true this is. How hard, and how true. And harder still as time continues to pass—we cannot say that we didn’t know.