Chinese star Yao Chen turns cameras onto Syrian refugees in Lebanon

News Stories, 21 May 2014

© UNHCR/A.McConnell
Chinese actress Yao Shen meets Syrian refugees at a collective shelter in Tyre, Lebanon

TYRE, Lebanon, May 21 (UNHCR) At home in China she is a film star, but in her three-day visit to Lebanon, Yao Chen is turning the cameras round to capture the suffering of Syrian refugees and help spread awareness about their plight.

On Tuesday, the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador spent a day with some of those who have fled bombing and destruction in northern Syria and found shelter in the settlement of Ras el-Ein, near the southern Lebanese city of Tyre. Here, families crowd into makeshift tents or ramshackle apartment blocks without running water.

Chen, 34, is making a documentary about the experience that she will post on her Weibo account China's version of Twitter. She hopes to remind her 68 million followers about those who have lost everything in the struggle to escape war.

"My job is to pass the message," she told UNHCR staff. "I don't know about other countries, but in China, people living in peacetime only have a vague idea of what it means to be a refugee."

More than 330 refugees live in Ras el-Ein, where many of the young men and women wake up before dawn each day to look for work in the nearby banana plantations and vegetable fields. Those who are hired make US$5-US$7 per day.

The Chinese superstar sat with Ibrahim, 41, and his wife Shams, 31, along with their five children in their small apartment. Shams, a housewife who used to make wall decorations for a living, now decorates her home in Lebanon with plastic flowers made from old garbage bags.

The couple, who originated from Aleppo, told Chen they fled because they did not want their children to grow up witnessing war. They crossed to Jordan from Latakia province in the west more than a year ago after surviving a siege that caused starvation in their area and left them with no food or water for three days.

After sharing their breakfast and handing out Chinese sweets, Chen followed the family to the fields where they work picking cucumbers. She helped the daughters draw water from a well nearby that is used by all the refugees.

She asked each of Ibrahim and Sham's children what they aspired to be. Amal, 11 and first in her class at a second-shift school for refugees, hoped to be a teacher. Mohammed, 16, is learning to be a car mechanic.

Chen, who wraps up her Lebanon visit later today, said she felt a special duty to seek out refugee children. "I want to let them know they are not alone, there are people who love them," she said.

The actress, who is known for her romantic comedy roles and her bold commentary on social media, believes that filming refugee experiences is the key to explaining to her huge fan base the trauma of war.

"You don't need to take a picture of the damage of the war, you only need to take a picture of the refugees' faces and you catch what is in their eyes. The eyes can show you a lot of things... especially children," she said. "Some of them, you can look in their eyes and see there is tragedy in their life."

More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria's three-year conflict, which has forced millions to flee their homes. Above 2.7 million Syrians have been registered as refugees outside the country, while over 6 million others are estimated to be displaced inside Syria.

Chen asked another refugee mother in the settlement, Wajiha, why she still dreamed of her homeland despite the bloodshed. "Is there anything more precious than one's own nation?" asked the pregnant mother of six, sitting on the bare floor of her tent. Wajiha had lost an infant to a fire in the camp four months earlier.

In four years of working with UNHCR, Chen said she had been inspired by refugee stories, but she found Syrians unique in their determination to regain the lives that were shattered by war. "I can see they have good hopes for the future," she said, adding: "The Syrian refugees have faith… they wish not only to survive, they wish to have a better life."

By Erika Solomon in Tyre, Lebanon




UNHCR country pages

Yao Chen Biography

One of China's most popular actresses and one of the world's top micro-bloggers.

Yao Chen and UNHCR

Learn about Yao Chen's links with UNHCR.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

Lebanese Returnees Receive Aid

UNHCR started distributing emergency relief aid in devastated southern Lebanese villages in the second half of August. Items such as tents, plastic sheeting and blankets are being distributed to the most vulnerable. UNHCR supplies are being taken from stockpiles in Beirut, Sidon and Tyre and continue to arrive in Lebanon by air, sea and road.

Although 90 percent of the displaced returned within days of the August 14 ceasefire, many Lebanese have been unable to move back into their homes and have been staying with family or in shelters, while a few thousand have remained in Syria.

Since the crisis began in mid-July, UNHCR has moved 1,553 tons of supplies into Syria and Lebanon for the victims of the fighting. That has included nearly 15,000 tents, 154,510 blankets, 53,633 mattresses and 13,474 kitchen sets. The refugee agency has imported five trucks and 15 more are en route.

Posted on 29 August 2006

Lebanese Returnees Receive Aid

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie returned to the Syrian capital Damascus on 2 October, 2009 to meet Iraqi refugees two years after her last visit. The award-winning American actress, accompanied by her partner Brad Pitt, took the opportunity to urge the international community not to forget the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who remain in exile despite a relative improvement in the security situation in their homeland. Jolie said most Iraqi refugees cannot return to Iraq in view of the severe trauma they experienced there, the uncertainty linked to the coming Iraqi elections, the security issues and the lack of basic services. They will need continued support from the international community, she said. The Goodwill Ambassador visited the homes of two vulnerable Iraqi families in the Jaramana district of southern Damascus. She was particularly moved during a meeting with a woman from a religious minority who told Jolie how she was physically abused and her son tortured after being abducted earlier this year in Iraq and held for days. They decided to flee to Syria, which has been a generous host to refugees.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie meets Iraqi refugees in Syria

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits refugees in JordanPlay video

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett visits refugees in Jordan

UNHCR global Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett has recently visited Jordan, where she witnessed the ongoing humanitarian support to people displaced by conflict in Syria.
Switzerland: UNHCR Finding Pathways for Syrian RefugeesPlay video

Switzerland: UNHCR Finding Pathways for Syrian Refugees

In the pursuit of innovative ways to help Syrian refugees, a conference in Geneva considers proposals for other pathways such as humanitarian admission, scholarships, family reunification and labour mobility.
Syria: Hope Returns to Baba AmrPlay video

Syria: Hope Returns to Baba Amr

Twelve out of 36 neighbourhoods in the city of Homs are in desperate need of reconstruction. One of them is Baba Amr, where clashes in 2011-2012 uprooted some 80,000 people. Four years on, returning residents and Syrians displaced from other parts of the country are coming together to rebuild the area.