The following article, by No Strings programmes manager Rosie Waller, appeared in the Newcastle Journal in January 2013.
We’re so close to the Syrian border, families say they can sometimes hear the shelling at night. Your instinct is to think that these people who have made it to Lebanon are the lucky ones; at least they have some level of security. But crossing the mountains to the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, famed for its vineyards and fruit farms, now grey, wet and frankly miserable in winter, has been a last resort. The reasons for being here are not good ones.
For these refugees, New Year comes with hopes for an early return, but experts view the situation pessimistically, a possible descent into more protracted fighting with one faction turned on another for what could be years. None of these people here today wanted war. The regime was unjust, but their lives were relatively normal, peaceful, not much different from ours in this country. They talk of a sense of disbelief, of denial even.
We’re greeted by smiles, families posing for photographs, children curious to see visitors, entertained by how these new people manage in all the mud that surrounds their makeshift tents, forming great sliding balls on your shoes. Some of them are in wellies, some plastic flip flops, some clomping about in their fathers’ trainers, or barefoot. They came after numerous moves from one freshly-destroyed refuge to another in Syria, often with only the clothes on their backs.
At night time, parents are often at a loss to know how to comfort their children when the dark and quiet opens the door to their memories. Some, very possibly many, of these children have witnessed the brutal death of close relatives.
Today, however, we’re with a small team of international social workers, and they have a box of soft toys to hand out, and the children seem like children anywhere in the world, holding their teddies at arms length to admire, or tenderly sharing them with younger siblings.
Children are king in Syria, they say.
Based in Gosforth, Newcastle, as well as Donegal, Ireland, No Strings International is a charity that supports children in various parts of the world on a range of issues, from natural disaster preparedness to HIV and landmine awareness. Working alongside some of the biggest creative talents of the original Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock, our aim is to reach children with engaging, colourful puppet films, but which carry serious messages relating to wellbeing.
The reason for this visit to Lebanon and Jordan, countries like Turkey and Iraq, receiving many hundreds of Syrian refugees each day, is to research two films for children affected by this vicious and spiraling conflict, one on trauma healing, the other on solidarity issues. A programme initiated in Haiti earlier this year along similar lines is proving extremely popular, and effective, with children there.
I ask Monica, a bubbly Italian social worker, one of a team of just three dealing with hundreds of families here in the Bekaa, for typical stories she hears from each day’s new arrivals.
“There was a widow whose three brothers were killed, and then her sister was shot in the street. She came here alone with her four children because there was nothing left for her in Syria.
“Another woman who arrived recently told me her baby was shot in the head as they fled towards the border in a taxi. She had been holding him in her arms. Most people when they tell you stories like this will obviously cry. It can be very hard to listen to. But this woman was calm. I asked her why, and she said she no emotion left, she couldn’t even feel fear any more.”
Sandwiched in between ploughed fields, there are numerous of these small tented communities in this part of the 16km-wide valley, each a stitched-together huddle of hessian, plastic and washing lines as you drive by. Some have pot-bellied stoves, many don’t. Some were built by Syrian seasonal workers in summertime, with concrete floors, like the one that houses a family of ten who arrived a month ago from Homs, where a little girl lies on a mattress beside a two-ring electric hob, the only source of heating with temperatures hovering around, and easily capable of plummeting below, zero. All that they have now, their pots and pans, shoes, bedding, was given to them by neighbouring refugees.
What’s curious here is that these camps are private. Unlike refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, Syrians here pay rent to local landlords.
For some in particular, these leaking tents are highly unsuitable, and organisations try to prioritise the more vulnerable. For $150 a month, the next family we visit gets two small rooms in the downstairs of an austere building, one with a stove, and what passes for a kitchen. The walls and floor are bare concrete and it’s damp in the extreme, and cold.
This was a middle class family, but now the father struggles to meet the rent. Friends and other refugees have helped, but he is understandably anxious. Of his nine children, one, a teenage girl, has severe learning difficulties and sits against a wall, staring towards the floor, motionless. His six-year-old son has cancer of the kidneys, and the father must take him three times a month across the dangerous border and back into Syria, where hospital treatment, for now anyway, is accessible and free. Here in Lebanon, it would be impossible to afford.
The family looks shabby, poor, hardened, but they smile, insisting we come in, two of the children showing us around their few things, the mattresses stacked up in the back awaiting nighttime. While most of their fathers are back in Syria, defending what their family has left, fighting, some men have no choice but to accompany their children and take a role trying to earn money as refugees. When spring and summer come, there will no doubt be opportunities in the orchards and farms, but winter presents a different face.
We ask local organisations working in Syria and its neighbours what messages the proposed No Strings films should carry. Children need to understand that whatever they feel is normal in a situation like this, and feelings and behaviour are often linked, they say. Anger is normal; withdrawal is normal. But they should have a sense of hope. There are little things they can do to help each other, that will help them.
The idea is that we assemble all these views and create a series of key messages that will be incorporated into two highly engaging, possibly magical puppet films, not dissimilar to the old Muppet films or shows many of us grew up with, but sharing these messages in ways children grasp. No Strings then trains local teachers and facilitators in techniques designed to encourage children to talk, first about the characters in the films, then possibly themselves. Hand or shadow puppet activities either bring comfort, or with older children, involve them directly in working through issues together.
We meet a team of social workers and religious leaders from Damascus, here for a short training programme in reaching out to rapidly increasing numbers, and ensuring their work is effective. They are incredible people, fun, warm, utterly dedicated. They leave the following day, as reports on CNN describe renewed bombing between the border and capital.
One of them, a Catholic sister, works with 400 children a day there. “I have many parents who ask me, how do I respond to my child?” she tells us. “They say, they have changed so much through what they have experienced, I don’t know how I should be with them. I tell them their children need special time and attention. That’s it. It’s all in just one word, really: love.”