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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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Stories That Must Be Told

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Preparing for a UNICEF field trip

After a busy first few months at UNICEF UK as their Television Manager, I’m happy to say that there are now some exciting TV projects in the pipeline. Right now, I’m gearing up for an imminent overseas trip with a small BBC crew to film an ambitious documentary with Syrian refugee children. It will be an opportunity to hear first-hand the stories of some of the real people involved in the so-called “migrant crisis”, and to show their extraordinary resilience and humanity in the face of circumstances many of us would, I’m sure, find completely unbearable.

Since starting my UNICEF job back in May, I’ve frequently been called to mind of one of my favourite ever movie scenes. In The Constant Gardener, Rachel Weisz’s character Tessa, a human rights campaigner, is trying to persuade her conservative diplomat husband Justin (played by Ralph Fiennes) to pull over their 4×4 as they drive through a poor African village, to give a lift to a mother and her young sons who are walking miles along the dusty road to fetch water. Justin: “We can’t involve ourselves in their lives, Tessa.” Tessa: “Why?” Justin: “Be reasonable. There are millions of people, they all need help…” Tessa: “Yeah, but these are three people WE can help.”

Filming with kids at a UNICEF project in Morocco

Filming with kids at a UNICEF project in Morocco

Working at UNICEF has opened my eyes to the sheer numbers of people in the world – millions – who need assistance, whether because of disease, natural disasters, or as victims of conflict. While UNICEF and many organisations like it are doing some incredible work, I’ve more than once questioned whether it’s possible to really “make a difference” – especially when thinking about my own tiny contribution as someone helping to get international development stories out there to the general public.

Where I’ve got to is Tessa’s approach: to think in “micro” rather than “macro” terms, to humanise the issue, if you will. It’s not about helping the masses, the millions, but simply doing what you can in your own life – whether it’s putting a coin in a collecting tin, working or volunteering for a charity, or simply keeping an eye out for your neighbour, it all counts in the “humanity stakes”. For me, storytelling has always been at the heart of what I do – this is my way of showing I give a damn about what’s happening in the world around me, a small but meaningful way that I can help.

So, as I get ready for my next field trip with UNICEF and the documentary crew, my focus is very much on the people I will be meeting on the ground and how we might tell their stories with integrity and sensitivity. We’ll be filming in some challenging environments and will undoubtedly see some confronting scenes. It’s going to be an adventure of a very different kind for me, and I’m both excited and trepidatious. I hope to share the fruits of it with you all later in the year.🙂

Meantime, here are some of our UNICEF Ambassadors including Ewan McGregor, Michael Sheen and Tom Hiddleston making a powerful plea on behalf of Syrian children:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=un4cZOKFK3M

There’s No Place Like Home. 

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2015 in Adventure Travel

 

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An Exciting New Chapter

Filming with kids at a UNICEF project in Morocco

Filming with kids at a UNICEF project in Morocco

Well, after seeing in the New Year in Bali and then travelling variously to Perth, Sydney and then Zambia, I’m excited to announce a new chapter in my life, which starts in just a few days! UNICEF UK have just appointed me their new Television Manager, a full-time role in which I’ll be looking after their broadcast TV output, working with their celebrity Ambassadors and supporters and international projects to generate documentaries, formats, telethons and other fundraising programmes that will air on TV. I’ll be building on their stable of very successful programmes, including Soccer Aid and Ewan McGregor’s Cold Chain. I’ll be based in the London office but will undoubtedly travel as required to UNICEF projects.

At the finish of the 2010 Sahara Trek with Russ Malkin and the UNICEF team

At the finish of the 2010 Sahara Trek with Russ Malkin and the UNICEF team

As you can imagine, I’m more than a little excited about this job. I’ve been a supporter of UNICEF since 2010 when I did a fundraising trek with Goodwill Ambassador and fellow TV producer Russ Malkin. Having seen with my own eyes where some of the money donated goes to help kids and their families around the world, I’m thrilled at the opportunity to be a meaningful part of the UNICEF UK team and bring my TV experience and expertise to an organisation whose aims and activities I wholeheartedly believe in.

It also means that after two years of a fairly nomadic existence, I will be “of fixed abode” again, living in London for the first time in over 10 years. Happily, I’ve just found a lovely little place in Wandsworth Common – my old haunt and a beautiful part of the city, with lots of trees and green open spaces – and it will be good to get settled again, after living life out of a suitcase!

I can’t wait to get started with my new colleagues at UNICEF and will do my best to share my new adventures there with you whenever I can. Meantime, as you’ll all be aware, there are many aid agencies working in Nepal right now to bring help to the millions of people who’ve been affected by the devastating earthquake. UNICEF are particularly well-placed to deliver help as they are already permanently based there. I’ll leave it to Ewan McGregor to tell you more about what they’re doing – and if it inspires you to donate a little something to help, that would be wonderful!

http://blogs.unicef.org.uk/2015/04/28/ewan-mcgregor-help-children-nepal/

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2015 in Adventure Travel

 

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News: Presenting at Overland Expo 2014

Commandeering a boda boda in Uganda

Commandeering a boda boda in Southwest Uganda

I’m excited to announce that I’m going to be a Presenter at this year’s Overland Expo in Flagstaff, Arizona, 16th-18th May 2014.

As many of you know, I was there last year manning the Charley Boorman stand with my friend Billy Ward. I had a great time meeting lots of fellow overlanders, adventure motorcyclists and 4×4 enthusiasts, and really loved the adventurous spirit and camaraderie that filled the air over those three days at Mormon Lake, about 2 hours’ ride from Phoenix.

This time round, I’ll be doing a one-hour session about my recent three-month African Film Adventure in southwest Uganda, down by the border with the Congo and Rwanda. I’ll be showing some clips and photos from the trip, talking about some of the challenges of travelling and filming in this remote part of Africa, and fielding questions about how to combine overlanding adventures with volunteering. 

I’m a big advocate of doing good while travelling and have done a number of trips now which have combined adventure with “giving something back”, including my big Sahara trek with UNICEF Ambassador Russ Malkin in 2010. This year I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Africa (most recently Ghana) as a Journalist with Comic Relief to film and report on the many charity projects that are being funded by them there.

Exploring the Grand Canyon after the 2013 Overland Expo

Exploring the Grand Canyon after the 2013 Overland Expo

I’m really looking forward to sharing my experiences with the OX14 audience, not to mention hearing about everyone else’s adventures. It will be great to be back at the Expo, which is now one of the biggest overlanding/adventure events of the year. I can’t wait to be back in Arizona – last time, I borrowed a motorbike and toured Route 66 and the Grand Canyon; this time, well, let’s just say I’m going to be having another good look around!

Details about session times and venue for my talk at OX14 are still being firmed up by the organisers, but keep an eye on the Overland Expo website: http://www.overlandexpo.com. Hope to see you there!

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in Adventure Travel

 

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Adventures With Comic Relief

Capturing a story in Africa

Capturing a story in Africa

After coming back to the UK for a couple of weeks to consider my next move, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse: six weeks working as a Freelance Journalist for Comic Relief. This high-profile charity supports projects in the UK and overseas, mainly in Africa, and my job in the coming weeks is to gather stories from some of those projects to show how fundraisers’ money is being spent.

With Comic Relief’s Sport Relief 2014 campaign coming up (21st-23rd March), it’s a great opportunity to get some “good news stories” out there and I’m excited at the chance to be part of it.

My Comic Relief coffee mug :)

My regulation Comic Relief coffee mug🙂

My first week has already been fantastically busy. I’ve interviewed a Ghanaian woman from a remote African village who pulled herself out of poverty to become President of one of the most successful Fairtrade cocoa farming co-operatives in Africa. I’ve covered a story about women being saved from the Nairobi slums by a project that promotes boxing as a way to combat social problems. And I’ve talked to a doctor in Ghana who’s at the forefront of delivering life-saving vaccines to remote village communities via the “cold chain” process. (Remember Ewan McGregor’s recent UNICEF Cold Chain Mission documentary on the BBC? It’s the same kind of thing.) Diverse work indeed – and I’m loving it!

After my 4 months in Uganda setting up Film Africa, a community film project for local people to share their stories using video, it’s fascinating seeing charity work from a different perspective and realising what’s involved, not just in the projects themselves, but in promoting awareness of their work. And as someone with a passion for Africa, I’m pleased to see so many people there benefitting from Comic Relief-funded programs.

So I’m throwing myself into the next few weeks. Apart from anything else, it’s a good opportunity to put some money in my pocket to help fund my next adventures. Because yes, as ever I’m cooking up some more overlanding exploits for 2014: more on that to come very soon…🙂

To find out more about what Comic Relief does and see how you can get involved in this year’s Sport Relief campaign: http://www.comicrelief.com.

 
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Posted by on February 16, 2014 in Adventure Travel, Motorcycling

 

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