Lessons From My Father documents Shafik Suleyman's struggle to run a free school for Syrian refugee children in Istanbul and his son's attempts to reconnect with him through filmmaking.

Lessons From My Father documents Shafik Suleyman's struggle to run a free school for Syrian refugee children in Istanbul and his son's attempts to reconnect with him through filmmaking.

“Shafik has many reasons to be sad, upset and depressed about the experiences he’s been through: the war, the setbacks, the heartbreaks, the deaths and the destruction that he’s witnessed,” explains filmmaker Saf Suleyman, “But he’s got his eyes solely on the future. Shafik knows that the future is in the children, it’s in the next generation. If you can give them an opportunity, then there is hope for the future.”

Lessons From My Father chronicles former-factory owner Shafik Suleyman’s struggle to found and run the only free school for Syrian refugee children in Istanbul. With no previous educational experience, Shafik’s decision was a leap into the dark – but it’s his attempt to do what he can to save a generation of Syrian children, millions of whom are at risk of missing out on an education.

Shafik Suleyman

Shafik Suleyman

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While it’s a story about one man’s mission to rebuild the next generation of his country, it’s also a deeply personal story about director Saf’s reconnection with his estranged father, Shafik, who Saf lost touch with when his parents separated fifteen years ago. Growing up in London after his father returned to Aleppo, Saf had little contact with him until he and his new family fled the war to Turkey – along with 2.5 million other Syrians.

A full-time cameraman and producer at BBC’s Panorama, meeting again in Istanbul led to the short film Bilaadi (Homeland), which led to Lessons From My Father, a work in progress feature documentary. The film is finalist in the Whicker’s World Foundation Awards, which gives £80,000 to filmmakers under 30 looking to make their first full-length documentary.

“My natural instinct was to film, to document my surroundings,” Saf explains. “Going to Istanbul to make Bilaadi was a really intense and intimate way of getting to know my dad again and my family. Having the camera there helped me bridge a gap and ask difficult questions early on, to really find out what their experience during the war had been. It allowed me to discover how they saw their past, how they saw their current situation and what they were hoping for in the future.”

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Saf watched as his father’s project grew from ten kids on a carpet learning the Koran to having a school with 900 students and 50-60 staff with a full curriculum. In the process of seeing his project blossom, Saf found himself reconnecting with a father who had previously felt so distant. “I discovered that this man I haven’t known for half my life is actually a man I’ve always known, in that he was always someone who wanted to help people and always had these kind of big Del Boy-ish ambitious ideas,” Saf explains. “I found a man who was determined to make a difference and rebuild.”

Saf with his father

Saf with his father

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The future for most of the 4.8 million Syrians who have been forced to flee to other countries is precarious. In Turkey, roughly half of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees are of school age, yet many families can’t afford school fees, so hundreds of thousands are condemned to begging, child labour or selling lighters at traffic lights to survive.

While prospects are bleak for many Syrian refugees, coverage often overlooks the huge efforts Syrians themselves are making to improve their situation and hold their people and culture together. Shafik is among many Syrians looking forward and working towards a brighter future for his country, once the war comes to an end and his people can return home. Beyond Saf and his father’s personal story, Lessons From My Father is a challenge to the way we usually view the Syrian conflict.

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Shafik finds kids selling by the roadside and ask if they would like to come to school

Shafik finds kids selling by the roadside and ask if they would like to come to school

“All too often the depiction of the Syrian crisis, the civil war or the refugee crisis, is about despair and destruction and has framed Syrians as poor hopeless victims,” Saf explains. “This shows them in a different light. Syrian civil society is still very strong, culturally they’re a very unique bunch of people with an undying soul and optimism. I don’t want to use the word ‘hope’ because it’s such a cliché, but this is an optimistic story about the difference that individuals can make to themselves and their surroundings – and their countries and their societies – just through determination.”

Saf Suleyman’s Lessons From My Father is a finalist in the Whicker’s World Foundation Awards for young documentary filmmakers. Winners will be announced in June at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival. Check out more from SE15 Productions.

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