Caleb Jehl was among a few people who on a whim in 2015 flew to Europe to witness firsthand the Syrian refugee crisis.
Jehl says the intention was to go to where the refugees were walking through Eastern and Southern Europe and find ways to help. “From there, we saw a lot of the suffering and problems and came to understand what a lot of these refugees were going through,” he says.
The experience led him to start Fort Wayne for Refugees, a nonprofit that promotes the welfare of refugees through awareness and education, when he returned to Fort Wayne. The organization began to raise money and do events, “trying to make a little bit of an impact,” Jehl says.
Now, six years later, those initial efforts have led to a much larger project that will help draw attention through the art of film to the young refugees in Lebanon who are being affected.
When Jehl started going to the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, his initial hope was just to provide food, water and shelter to the refugees. But as he began to see that many of the young people in the refugee camps had nowhere to go and nothing to do, had limited opportunities for education and weren't allowed to work, he realized, “This is really history repeating itself.”
Jehl says he learned about the struggles of the Burmese and Vietnamese refugees and how the younger generations became lost, were ignored and had a lot of problems because they lived in refugee camps for most or all their lives.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, millions of refugees have sought asylum, the majority in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. It is estimated that 1 in 4 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee.
During his trips to Lebanon, Jehl had established a relationship with Elias Matar, a Los Angeles filmmaker who also had started a similar organization, Lighthouse Peace Initiative Corp., to help refugees. Jehl also serves on its board.
Matar had made a documentary of the initial trip Jehl was involved with and has done other documentaries in Lebanon about the Syrian refugees. Jehl says the two men began talking about what they were seeing in Lebanon regarding the young people and decided to start a community educational center.
They were able to rent space in Bar Elias, which is the center of the Beqaa Valley and has the largest concentration of Syrian refugees in the region, and opened the Manara Center. The center offers programs in music, art, theater, interior design, first aid and vocational training programs, as well as giving the children a safe place away from the everyday confines of settlement life.
Eventually, the kids began making their own movies with the dream to make a full-length movie, Jehl says. This summer it became a reality as “What Is Buried Must Remain” became the first feature film of Matar's LPI Film Production and the Young Syrian Filmmakers.
The filming took place in June and July. Jehl spent a week in July helping to film the movie, in which many of the Manara Center's students star and are on the crew.
The film is set in present-day Lebanon and is a modern ghost story about three young filmmakers preparing to make a documentary about a French industrialist who was accused of murdering his family and are confronted by supernatural forces.
The film is now in post-production with the hope that it will be submitted to the Sundance Film Festival by this fall. However, Jehl says they are still in need of about $50,000 to help finish the project. About $90,000 has already been put into the film, many of it from fundraising and from “our personal funds,” Jehl says.
Jehl, who owns several businesses, including cleaning and real estate companies, hopes that people will donate to the project so his and Matar's organizations can continue to bring awareness to the Syrian refugee crisis.
He says his own involvement started as an opportunity he couldn't justify turning down. “There's no great, noble story,” Jehl says. “It's happenstance.”
But he admits that once he arrived and saw the people “walking thousands of miles because their country had been torn apart,” his ideas shifted.
“To see these people and see what was going on ... ,” Jehl says, “it was a big perspective change for me.”
Donations for the Manara Center film project can be made to Fort Wayne for Refugees' Facebook page, at lpicorp.org or by contacting Elias Matar by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.