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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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BBC Documentary: The Boy On The Bicycle

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With Ola (bottom right), one of the stars of the BBC documentary, and her friends at a UNICEF Makani centre in Za’atari

Well, since my last post, the BBC film I went to Jordan to work on for Unicef has aired in the UK – and the response has been nothing short of amazing! We filmed The Boy On The Bicycle in Za’atari in the northeast of the country, about 7 miles from the Syrian border. The simple aim was to show a “child’s eye view” of life in a refugee camp – told entirely using children’s voices. The families we spent time with there certainly left a lasting impression on me, as I wrote in my behind-the-scenes blog for Unicef UK: http://blogs.unicef.org.uk/2015/12/08/cbbc-documentary-the-boy-on-the-bicycle/

I’ve been really touched by the feedback I’ve received about the film, both from my Unicef colleagues and the public. Grown men Tweeted that they were “moved to tears” by the film and many parents wrote that they’d watched the documentary with their kids and finally had a way to talk to them about Syria and refugees. Others gratifyingly said that the film was more insightful than any “quick-fix” news reportage they’d seen. Perhaps the most moving Tweet came from a Mum who’d watched with her seven year-old daughter and been “moved to do something!”

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TV director Stef Buonajuti films with Ola, who also wears a GoPro on her head to capture the footie action!

Such has been the response, that I’ve started calling The Boy On The Bicycle “the little film that could”. It was made on a relatively small budget and the team involved was tiny – but using a combination of creative filming techniques (including giving the kids themselves cameras to film with when a curfew in Za’atari camp meant we had to leave) and gaining the absolute trust of the participants, especially Ahmed, Ali and Ola (the wonderfully articulate and characterful kids featured in the film), it seems the documentary has conveyed their stories in a way that has resonated with many people who have, till now, struggled to truly understand their plight.

When I joined Unicef UK as their TV Manager earlier this year, I was hoping above all else to give kids a voice – and this wonderful little film has been a chance to fulfil that in a relatively short space of time. Looking ahead to 2016, I’m already cooking up new TV projects which I hope, in many different ways, will tell the stories of other children around the world who need to be heard.

The Boy On The Bicycle is still available to watch on BBC iPlayer (UK viewers only, I’m afraid!): http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/cbbc/episode/b06s65rj/my-life-series-7-4-the-boy-on-the-bicycle

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Detail of a wall at the edge of Za’atari refugee camp.

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2015 in Adventure Travel

 

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Syrian Stories: Filming Adventures In Jordan

Za'atari camp, Mafraq, Jordan

Za’atari camp, Mafraq, Jordan

I’m just back from my latest trip, filming a UNICEF/BBC documentary in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, near the border with Syria. Working with a small but perfectly-formed team, we spent time with a number of Syrian children and their families, getting their perspective on life in the camp and finding out first-hand what has made so many families like them flee their homes and homeland. As you might imagine, their stories were as heartbreaking as they were uplifting and I was continually touched at how warmly they welcomed us into their new abodes in the camp – containers with minimal furnishings, or basic rooms with tarpaulin roofs – and shared with us what little they had with huge smiles and unconditional generosity.

Filming during the sandstorm!

Filming during the sandstorm!

The trip itself was something of an adventure its own right. A couple of days into filming, the camp was hit by a sudden enormous sandstorm that descended on us like a tsunami. The sky went from yellow to black to blood-red in a matter of minutes, blocking out the sun, and we all had to run for cover as thick sand threatened to choke us as it engulfed the streets. Just a day later, there was a torrential rainstorm which resulted in water sluicing down the muddy streets and many of the refugee homes’ flimsy roofs caving in with the weight of rainwater. And then, just to keep things interesting, we ran into thick fog on the third day, which descended on the camp and its surrounds, enveloping everything in a chilly, eery grey cloak. For us, these were challenging conditions to film in – but it was a sobre reminder, too, that this is what over 80,000 people in Za’atari camp are having to deal with every single day. 

Meeting kids in one of UNICEF's Child-Friendly Spaces.

Meeting kids in one of UNICEF’s Child-Friendly Spaces.

Thankfully, UNICEF and other aid agencies are working tirelessly here to try and make things easier for the residents of Za’atari – families who have no idea how long they will have to be here and when they might be able to go home. I’m always humbled when I see first-hand the work that UNICEF does in the field and this trip was no exception – the schools, the Child-Friendly Spaces, and the recreational areas where kids can just be kids are all crucial in ensuring that these displaced children have a kind of “normality” in this strange place until – some day – they are able to go back home. 

The footage we filmed is now being edited and I hope to share news with you soon of when the documentary will air. I can’t say too much about it for now as it’s all under wraps (!) but watch this space… 🙂

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2015 in Adventure Travel

 

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