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Refugee Stories in Jordan

Jeanie - Sahara Trek 2010I’m just back from a truly eye-opening trip to Jordan for UNICEF with a TV documentary team. We’ve been travelling the country meeting Syrian refugee families, some in formal camps like Za’atari and Azraq and others in “host communities” in the capital Amman and provincial towns. All have fled the fighting in Syria and made the dangerous journey, often with small babies and children, over the border into Jordan.

Some have been living in Jordan for several years, others have just arrived. All have incredible stories of hardship and survival – as a film-maker, what struck me is how every single person we met is a living and breathing movie in their own right.

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Syrian refugee children find an old bicycle to play with

Whilst media attention has been largely focussed on camps like Za’atari (which is now the second largest in the world), the reality is that more than 80% of refugees are actually trying to eek out an existence in towns and cities alongside local Jordanians and refugees from other countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. In theory, they have more freedom than in the camps (which require refugees to apply for exit permits if they wish to leave) – but actually, many seem to be living in isolation, struggling to make ends meet, relying on hand-outs from neighbours, and desperately trying to make life as normal as possible for their children, who have been through some truly traumatic experiences to get this far. 

Hearing stories from refugee children and their families first-hand, I was struck by their incredible resilience in the face of such adversity. Hussam, a sparky 15-year-old, gave me a hair-raising account of how he and his family left their town in Dara’a in the south of Syria, paying smugglers to find them a good route on foot and by truck across the desert, hiding out in abandoned buildings in case they were discovered by “men with guns” (including ISIS), and fearing for the smallest children and pregnant women in the group he was travelling with. I can’t imagine how I would have coped with all that as an adult, let alone as a fifteen-year-old child.

Many refugees are living in towns near the border with Syria. We went to one town, Al Ramtha, about 5kms from the border, which has periodically suffered the fallout of shelling from fighting going on near Dara’a on the Syrian side of the border. Here, as in many other towns, refugee children and their families are living a fairly hellish existence, it seems. Saddam, 13 years old, told us how he goes to work on farms to try and earn money for his family (his mother is too ill to work, his father is still back in Syria). The work he has to do (climbing high ladders to separate the fruit on trees so it will grow better) sounds back-breaking and he’s often out on the land for 12 hours or more, getting paid just 5 Jordanian Dinars for the day (minimum wage in Jordan is, I’m told, more like 5 Jordanian Dinars PER HOUR). His sister Hala, 15, also works long hours on the farms – she says the “chemicals that make the plants grow” frequently give her and the other children “allergies” and if the boss isn’t happy with their work, their pay is withheld.

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Makani centres, like this one run by Mercy Corps, keep refugee children in Jordan off the streets and in education

In the suburbs of Amman, we met street children, some as young as seven or eight, who run the gauntlet of the local police to earn cash – it seems it’s worth the risk to put food on the table for their families. At a local UNICEF-supported Makani centre in East Amman, which provides schooling and psychosocial support to refugees, we spoke to many children who said that keeping their education going is the only difference between a life of child labour and the chance to have a future: these seem to be the “lucky” ones but still, they are living in abject poverty in the seedier parts of town. 

We met many refugees who are looking to relocate or be reunited with family overseas. Many have applied to Germany, Norway and Canada, where close relatives (fathers, brothers, sisters) have already arrived after “going by sea” (refugee-speak for making the perilous journey via Greece/Turkey). In most cases, they’ve been through months of “process” – application forms, health tests and interviews – and are still waiting to hear: an agonising wait, given the circumstances of many scraping along on the fringes of society. Interestingly , we struggled to find many who’ve applied to be reunited with family in the UK – the perception, in Jordan at least, seems to be that Britain is “shut” (their word) to refugees.

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A hand-made gift from the lovely teachers working at a UNICEF-supported centre run by Relief International at Azraq refugee camp

I’m still trying to process everything I saw and heard on this trip – and believe me, the stories I’ve related here are by no means the most extreme that I heard; those I will leave to the documentary-makers who were with me on the trip.

Meantime, one little boy remains firmly etched on my consciousness. While taking tea with eight-year-old Ahmed and his family in their basic two-roomed house in one of Amman’s poorest suburbs, I asked his Mum and Dad if their four young sons had any toys to play with – the house was very bare and seemed devoid of signs that children lived there.

Immediately, Ahmed ran to fetch his prized possession: an old white toy bus that his parents said had been scavenged from a bin in the street somewhere nearby. As he ran the bus along the floor, I noticed it had a missing wheel – unworried, the boy happily trundled it along: it was his only toy and he clearly loved it to bits. Inwardly, I choked up that something so simple could give this small boy a little piece of a joy in an otherwise horrible existence. 

Seeing what’s happening on our doorstep right now in Calais and Dunkirk, it’s unfathomable that we wouldn’t do everything we could to help kids like the ones I met in Jordan – Ahmed, Saddam, Hussam – who have travelled so very far to find safety and compassion. So I’ll continue to tell their stories – through blogs, films, whatever means – in the hope that people will, like me, start to see them as individuals who deserve our help and not strangers who are “someone else’s problem.”

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2016 in Adventure Travel

 

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Film Africa – Shooting Starts

Screen grab from video shot with the Batwa near Nkuringo

Screen grab from video shot with the Batwa near Nkuringo

It’s been a busy week down here in southwest Uganda. After a few weeks of field research and collating some basic bits of camera equipment, we’ve been able to do our first shooting for Film Africa – or “Film Club” as the locals have dubbed it.

On Tuesday, we headed up the mountain on motorbikes for a first meeting with the Batwa tribe near Nkuringo, to broach the idea with them of documenting their culture and way of life on film. I’d always wondered if pygmies really existed – or whether it was just an outdated term for indigenous tribes – but as soon as we met the first Batwa, I realised that at 5″4 I towered above them all! Moments later, we were heading deep into the pocket forest with them for a first taste of how they live. After showing us various medicinal herbs and some “chat” leaves (“These make a very strong drink!”), we went to one of their settlements, where they live in small huts made of mud and leaves and a rather spectacular two-storey treehouse.

The Batwa come to welcome us into the forest

The Batwa come to welcome us into the forest

We then found ourselves huddled in the dark in one of the small huts with all twelve tribe members staring at us expectantly with wide eyes. The moment had come to talk to them about our film project. With the help of Kenneth, our local guide and interpreter, we talked the Batwa through our hopes of capturing their stories and way of life on film. When we said we wanted to get to know them better, they broke into wide smiles, clapped excitedly, and invited us to come back soon to spend a full day and night with them – and they would bring their questions for us to discuss things further. We left on a high, knowing that the first step towards filming with the Batwa was done. A special day indeed and one I will never forget.

One of the local kids plants a tree at the TRees For Life event

One of the local kids plants a tree at the Trees For Life event

Then on Friday, we filmed our first big community event – Trees For Life, a tree-planting event organised by Louise, a fellow volunteer. The whole town of Rubuguri turned out for a day of ceremonial tree-planting, speeches, music and dancing. As usual, the kids stole the show with their colourful costumes and enthusiastic singing as they led everyone down the town’s main street towards the ceremony.

So the Film Africa project is well and truly up and running. It’s been a struggle with limited electricity and minimal equipment but, undeterred, we’re now forging ahead!

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2013 in Adventure Travel

 

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