Monday, March 14, 2016

"These memories keep coming back - and I'm glad they do": Michael Sheen on Syria's lost generation

They could be kids running carefree in Port Talbot or on the streets of London - or even the teenage offspring of Hollywood stars.
Instead, they are the civil war-scarred, homeless, helpless and forced-old-before-their-time children cast adrift by five years and counting of carnage in Syria and spreading beyond.
Children as young as seven are being forced by armed groups to fight in Syria’s civil war which reaches its five-year anniversary on Tuesday, a Unicef study has found.
And as many as 8.4million children are now thought to have been harmed by the civil war which began in March 2011 with Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
Among those confronted by such enveloping despair - and the odd glimmer of hope - has been The Damned United, Frost/Nixon, The Queen and The Passion actor Michael Sheen, also a Unicef UK ambassador who spent last week in neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan.
Despite anti-’luvvie’ scorn from elsewhere, Sheen comes across as resolutely un-preachy and pragmatic, while yet humane and moved by what he has seen both over there and back here at home.
Not actorly earnest but eloquently-impassioned, nonchalantly chatty on other subjects while savouring wrapping himself around a sweet breakfast pastry after several early-morning hours already of radio and TV interview duties. (Meanwhile ruefully pondering on the England-Wales rugby match he just about arrived home to catch.)
Nursing a fabric bracelet bearing his name, made by nine-year-old Za’atari resident Hassan, Sheen told Metro: ‘On the surface they’re getting on with life, playing with other children, running around - they could be kids in Port Talbot, in London.
‘But then they you see the rise in child labour, in early marriages for teenage girls, the hands that look like they belong to middle-aged men.’
He was especially struck by the resemblance yet also disparity between his 17-year-old daughter Lily, by ex-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale, and a 16-year-old Za’atari camp inhabitant named Asmahan.
Sheen said: ‘Asmahan was incredibly striking in her red outfit, a very beautiful young woman with an extraordinary charisma and spirit.
‘It made me think about my own daughter, only a year older - yet Asmahan has been forced to leave her home and country, married at 13, physically abused then divorced, and now advising other girls in her camp.
‘And she’s only a year younger than my daughter - that still really strikes me.
‘These memories keep coming back, even back in everyday life in Britain, watching the rugby or eating a croissant here - and I’m glad they do, to keep reminding.’
He previously visited Lebanon two years ago, returning this time to not only take in some of the Lebanese informal settlements but also Jordan’s 80,000-refugee Za’atari camp.
He said: ‘The first time I went it was a hugely overwhelming experience - I was totally unprepared for what I was seeing.
‘This time, then, I was wondering what had changed but also thinking I knew what I was going into. But it still just hits you again.
‘On the positive side, after five years the international support and the people working with local partners and other aid agencies have put in place systems that are working really well.
‘These are extraordinary people out there - the child-friendly spaces Unicef have set up are amazing and to see children who have been through so much now enjoying themselves is very special.
‘They’re not going around saying, “My life is a tragedy”.
‘On the surface they’re getting on with life, playing with other children, running around - they could be kids in Port Talbot, in London.
‘But then you see the rise in child labour, in early marriages for teenage girls, the hands that look like they belong to middle-aged men.’
More than 1million Syrian refugees have crossed the border and found refuge in Lebanon, an already-impoverished nation with a population of its own of just 4million.
An equivalent influx into Britain would mean an extra 13million residents at least.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lebanese authorities have tried over recent months to restrict the flow - increasing border patrols and enforcing restrictions on Syrians working.
And yet the need to support themselves - especially with initial savings, on fleeing their homelands, running dry by now - means many refugees must seek out unofficial and easily-exploited employment.
These extends to Syrian refugee boys too, with Unicef researchers finding children as young as three put to work.
Being caught in the act, however, carries the prospect of being at the very least warned and, more alarmingly, thrust back across the border into Syria’s civil war ever-present dangers once more.
One boy Sheen met was 12-year-old Majd, who works eight hours a day in fields outside the Za’atari camp in Jordan earning meagre wages to help support his single mother and her other eight children.
Sheen said: ‘Majd’s a beautiful little boy but he has the bearing - and the hands - of a middle-aged man somehow.
‘He works eight hours a day in the fields outside his camp, the bosses screaming at him every time he turns away towards his mother, ans then in the evening he’s working within the camps with a pickaxe digging up gravel.
‘When I asked him what he missed most, he said: “My father.” He wants to go back to Syria, as most people there will tell you.
‘But when I asked him about his hopes for the future, for the first time he didn’t say anything. Nothing. From being so bright-spirited all the time beforehand.
‘He and his generation are right there on the cusp. There’s a possibility they could be lost.
‘Then again, some of them are there in drop-in centres, being given some counselling and interaction with other children. There is still the possibility of Majd and his friends coming through this.
‘what we’ve got to hope is that when there is finally some kind of political settlement and peaceful solution - whenever that may be - Majd’s generation is educated, confident and empowered enough to rebuild Syria.’
Sheen has been characterised - condemned, in fact - by some newspaper polemecists for appearing to self-righteously demand Britain accept tens of thousands upon thousands of Syrian refugees.
His mindset now comes across as more nuanced, acknowledging concerns about finite resources and the risk celebrities can alienate as much as persuade.
But he is keen to appeal to any sentiments, even if fired primarily by island-based self-interest and an aversion to incomes.
A drop in the sums being offered in international aid last year could well have not only worsened conditions in refugee camps surrounding Syria but also prompted more to take the risk of heading towards Europe.
Official humanitarian agency stats show the world provided 43 per cent of Syria funds deemed necessary by the United Nations last year, down from 58 per cent in 2014.
Sheen said: ‘More and more families started to feel that rather than die slow deaths in the camps they might as well take the risk of quicker deaths but at least with the gamble of getting somewhere better in Europe.
‘For anyone concerned about the number of refugees coming into Europe, this is another reason to support the work going on closer to Syria itself.
‘The most important thing ideally is to do as much work as we can to keep Syrian families in the region because they want to go home.
‘But the fact there are still so many people moving towards Europe, we ignore at our peril.
‘Of course people are concerned about security, about globalisation and its effect on jobs, on our economy - but there’s a human empathy and sympathy for suffering too.
‘It’s important not to lose sight of what others are going through - if they get reduced to mere numbers, then they’re lost, and we’ve all lost.’
At the other end of the charity scale from world-encompassing Unicef is south Wales-based Trac 2 - the initials standing for ‘The Really Amazing Charity’.
He visited the village of Trevethin just before last Christmas, amid hectic efforts to organise community Christmas handouts - including for the two Syrian refugee families who had lately been welcomed in.
‘This is one of the most deprived parts of Wales and yet here we had people at their most generous-minded,’ Sheen said.
‘Perhaps because of what they’re dealing with, day-to-day, that wasn’t a barrier but their point of contact with people from very different circumstances.
‘Britain is being welcoming and hospitable - although of course we can always do more.’

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