What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?

 

arrival

One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”

 

Making a welcoming contribution

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

A former student emailed me today to ask if I had heard about the outstanding work being undertaken by a Kurdish art therapist named Hassan Deveci who is based in Cologne (Köln), Germany. I had to admit that I had never heard of Deveci or the work that he has conducted from his studio in that Germany city. Apparently Deveci having fled from Turkey, first applied for political asylum in Germany in 1994. Initially he lived in a basic camp as he waited three years for a decision to be made about his status. Having eventually been granted asylum in Cologne, he turned his attention and skills in the direction of helping others.

The German international news channel Deutsche Welle reports that in recent months much of Deveci’s attention has been focused upon helping traumatised children who have fled as refugees from the conflict in Syria. His own experiences at having to leave his native country and settle into a different culture, have clearly shaped his attitudes and strengthened the resolve that he has to help others. He reports how his own recollection of a traumatic time in his life has motivated him to make contact with Syrian families and offer his expertise to assist children in adjusting to a new life in Germany.

It is more than a year since Deveci opened his studio to a small group of Syrian children and encouraged them to express their feelings and experiences through art. It is hardly surprising that much of the work produced by the children with whom he works has a common theme related to war and death. Many of the parents of those with whom he works have expressed their own distress that the images produced by these children tell tales of horror and trauma. However, Deveci is sure that giving these refugee children an opportunity to express their feelings and emotions through art, will have therapeutic benefits.

The parents report that their children’s German language abilities are improving and that they are beginning to make new friends and adjust to their new and strange situation. Equally important is the statement made by a parent that her children are having fun and doing the normal things that others are doing.

Whilst this is certainly a heartening story, and an indication of the care and consideration given by this artist to a group of distressed children and their families, there are some serious questions surrounding the current situation. Deveci states that he is simply one of many volunteers who have come forward to assist children who have lost everything from their former lives in Syria. However, he is now struggling to maintain support at the level which he had hoped, simply because he is running out of materials and the ability to continue financing this initiative.

Reading about this extraordinary man who sees himself as only doing what any decent citizen would wish to do, a number of matters crossed my mind. Firstly, that this man, in taking an initiative has demonstrated a level of personal responsibility and care that is exemplary and provides an outstanding example of citizenship from which we can all learn. Secondly, that those in positions of power and leadership might well benefit by considering the example he has provided and ensuring him the necessary support and resources to continue this work. I also wonder if the personal contact that he is having with these children might be having a beneficial impact upon his own coming to terms with displacement.

Whilst some members of the public and a significant proportion of the media occupy themselves with inciting negative views of “migrants” and refugees, here is a fine example of a man who is more than repaying the hospitality of a country in which many continue to see him as an outsider. I would suggest that he is an excellent example of a good German citizen.

 

 

Can dreams of a better future become reality?

 

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

How will children growing up here view the world in the future?

“It has always been my dream to give my children a better education than me. I had to leave school at 16 because my mother was sick and needed me to look after her.” These are the words of Avine Hassan, but the sentiments expressed could be those of any parent with aspirations for their children to do well at school. Sadly, in Avine’s situation, the opportunity to provide such an education has been severely impaired and this is just one of many stressful factors in her life.

Avine’s words are taken from an article published in The Guardian newspaper (11th April 2015) under the headline “I Never Imagined I’d Bring Up My Children in a Refugee Camp,” in which she recounts the tragic tale of fleeing from Syria with her husband and four children, leaving behind her home, business and all their possessions. Fighting outside of her home and finding a bullet embedded in the window frame of her house, led Avine and her husband to make the heartbreaking decision to leave a home that they loved. Having paid £2,000 pounds to a man who is clearly making a lucrative profit by assisting families like this to cross the border into Iraq, Avine arrived barefoot in a refugee camp containing 50,000 people, though it was built with facilities for half this number.

Understandably, Avine’s children spent a long time tearfully asking when they would return home, and why they were now living in a tent. Their mother now knows that they can never return to the life they had before, as it is reported that their former home and all of its contents have been completely destroyed. It is now four years since they fled the conflict, and Avine’s children have ceased asking about a return to their former lives. They have clearly become reconciled to the fact that life will never be the same again.

In Syria, Avine had run a successful bridal make-up service, and her husband was a qualified accountant. They have gone from a comfortable middle class existence, to one of penury and fear. Their future remains unknown and precarious, but amidst all of this, they continue to see education as a critical factor in enabling their children to find a better path in life. After a period when it seemed unlikely that formal schooling would be possible, things began to improve. The charitable organisation Save the Children opened a support centre, and now there is schooling available for children for six half days a week. In addition there are now resilience workshops established to support children in learning to cope with having lost their homes, possessions and in some cases family members. I am sure that such a centre will provide an invaluable service, but I suspect that many of these children will carry a heavy burden for the rest of their lives.

I find it almost unbearable to read accounts of families such as Avine’s and of the appalling circumstances in which they find themselves. These are innocent people who have worked hard and have ambitions for their children, that have been destroyed through acts of violence and political ineptitude. As is typical of mothers everywhere, Avine’s concerns are not for herself, but primarily for the welfare and futures of her children. She continues to dream and has not given up hope that in the times to come her children may have better lives than they have now. She recognises that education can play a significant role in enabling these improvements to come about. However, it is evident that education alone will not lead to greater stability, and cannot tackle the appalling levels of poverty that have been created through this conflict and many others like it around the world.

Avine’s husband is currently seeking opportunities for the family to relocate to Germany, where his skills and those of Avine could be put to better use. Such a move would also increase the educational and social opportunities of their children and bring new economic opportunities. However, Avine is realistic and knows that if they are granted entry into Germany, which is by no means certain, this will involve a long and complicated process. She may be less aware of the levels of anti-immigrant sentiment that exists at present across Europe, perpetuated by those who cannot begin to imagine the trauma experienced by families such as this.

It is hard to believe that anyone reading The Guardian report could not be moved and indeed angered by the dreadful situation that exists in the lives of so many refugees from Syria. It is to be hoped that the rest of the world recognises the unfolding tragedy and accepts some responsibility to provide whatever support can be mustered. Their own government and those who perpetuate the tragic war in Syria have turned their backs on these long suffering families. There is a strong possibility that the rest of the world may do likewise. Let’s hope that Avine’s children receive the education that they deserve and that their experiences help them to shape a more caring future. The alternative hardly bears thinking about.

 

 

Will anyone come to the rescue of these heartless politicians?

Will these people reach safety? If they capsize will anyone help, or will we turn our faces away?

Will these people reach safety? If they capsize will anyone help, or will we turn our faces away?

Can you imagine the fear experienced by a child forced by violence to flee home with his or her parents who are equally terrified? Having existed (we can hardly call it lived) in a makeshift tarpaulin home for several weeks or even months, your parents announce that one last hope for a better future has emerged. It arrives in the form of a rusty, leaking boat, into which you scramble along with several hundreds of other similarly fearful and desperate individuals, all hopeful to escape the hell which has been their reality since being forced to leave their homes and possessions behind.

Setting out from the shore you head towards an unknown destination, suspecting that if you arrive safely you may well be given a less than friendly reception; seen as an unwelcome intrusion and a “problem” to be confronted by the host country. This is a potential challenge to be addressed if and when you reach the safety of dry land.

This scenario is the bleak reality for thousands of children and their families, distraught and helpless as they reluctantly depart the coast of North Africa in the hope of securing a better future. They flee the wars of Syria, Libya and Iraq, the terrors of Eritrea, Somalia and Northern Nigeria, without any concept of what might be ahead of them, but in a belief that it cannot be any worse than the situation from which they have fled. For a child, the decision has been made, their future shaped by the desperation of their parents. These decisions are not taken lightly and many sleepless nights must precede such dangerous departures.

For some, a successful passage to the shores of Europe enables them to begin a new life and gain a semblance of the security of which they could only previously have dreamt. This may be a first step towards a better life free from violence and fear. But for others the voyage will end in tragedy, with many drowned at sea as their overladen vessels fail to negotiate the hazards of the Mediterranean.

In recent years a fortunate few of those whose flimsy crafts have floundered, have been rescued from the sea through the combined humanitarian efforts of European nations working to provide an emergency service. Harrowing images of these petrified survivors arriving ashore have been seen on television screens around the world. A brief glimpse into the eyes of the children plucked from the sea makes one sure that they will never forget their ordeal. Sadly, for many others the journey ends in tragedy, and I suspect that nobody knows the numbers of those who have perished.

Imagine then how it might feel to be a child who has learned that the UK Government has now announced that it is withdrawing support for these rescue operations. This decision has apparently been made on the grounds that a belief that rescue might be possible will encourage others to make the perilous journey. Can this really be true? Will those parents who are so desperate to escape their violent and helpless existence in order to give their children a better life, really be deterred from what they see as their only possible route to safety by this draconian measure?

In the past the UK has prided itself on its humanitarian and caring attitude towards the oppressed and dispossessed peoples of the world. This week UK government ministers have made a significant departure from this proud tradition. In so doing they have chosen to turn their backs on those who are in greatest need. I cannot believe that this decision carries the support of the British public. If this was the case then I would certainly be feeling ashamed to be British. As it is I say shame on those politicians who feel that they are justified in ignoring the pleas for mercy of so many suffering individuals.