While visiting Syrian refugees in countries all over the world, actor Ben Stiller talks about his personal experience and the connections he has made along the way.
The conflict in Syria has raged for eight years and millions are displaced. I met some of the children and families carving out a life far from home.
Five minutes after I was introduced to Yazan, I already thought he might be the coolest eight-year-old I have ever met. He has great hair. It’s black and shiny, with some sort of purple mousse he’s put in especially for the occasion. He’s incredibly friendly and has a smile that makes it impossible not to smile back.
We are in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon where Yazan lives with his twin sister Razan, who is as equally personable and cute; his brother, Salah; and baby sister, Rajaa. We’re in their home, a two-room concrete shelter we found at the end of a muddy alleyway off the main road to Syria, which is only about an hour from here.
His parents fled Syria in the middle of the night when the shooting and killing became too intense outside their home in Damascus. They bribed a border guard and crossed into Lebanon. They thought they would return home in three days. It’s been eight years.
Millions displaced, struggling to survive
Their story is not a unique one. I went to Lebanon last week with the UN Refugee Agency, to meet refugees who have fled the Syrian conflict which has gone on since Yazan was four months old. The conflict is complicated and while a small number of people are starting to return home, the vast majority feel it is not yet safe to do so. In Lebanon alone there are believed to be more than a million displaced Syrians. In a country of only four million locals, the issue is overwhelming. On a basic subsistence level, the refugees are living on a knife’s edge.
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For Yazan’s father, Raed, who worked as a taxi driver back home, providing for his family in Lebanon is incredibly hard. As a refugee he’s limited as to what he can do for work. So, in addition to being deep in debt, they have been constantly on the move.
The family’s three-day trip that has stretched to almost a decade, has been harrowing. Binnana, Yazan’s 23-year-old mother, told me that there was a time they lived in a stable when the twins were infants. They lived in a stall with rats and other animals, where everything was dirty. It’s where she gave birth to Salah. While the biblical imagery is hard to avoid, there is nothing divine about this reality. They had gotten to the point where Raed considered selling a kidney. A friend suggested selling their infant. Binana couldn’t do that.
When the children were hungry at night, she would tell them to imagine their favorite meal and go to sleep dreaming about it, together. This shared illusionary family meal would still leave them waking up hungry. In the end, they found they could make a little money buying vegetables at a wholesale market and giving them to eight-year-old Yazan to sell on a cart by the road. They regretted having to do that, but thought it was better than having their child beg.
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Ben Stiller visiting an informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, standing with a Syrian refugee. (Photo: UNHCR/Michael Muller)
I turned to Yazan, who was doodling a picture of an airplane with some markers, and asked him if he was a good salesman. He smiled that winning smile and the answer was obvious.
We walked out to his vegetable cart by the road. And, as he showed me where he worked, the reality of an eight-year-old having to provide for his family sunk in. Even crossing the road was an ordeal, which would be enough to concern a parent, yet here he was showing me how he actually supported his family.
For refugees, childhood is cut short
While physically surviving this crisis is challenging, the psychological effects on these kids and parents is just as concerning.
I remembered talking to a 13-year-old boy I met a couple of years ago in Jordan. His family had fled Aleppo in 2013. He worked in a garage in Amman, the capital, for 12 to 14 hours a day to support his brothers and sisters. When I told him he was a hard-working kid, he told me proudly that he isn’t a kid, he’s a man. When I look in Yazan’s eyes, I still see a kid, but I wonder how long that will be. The war has lasted his whole life. It’s all he knows.
Ben Stiller with children at Zouq Bhannine informal settlement in Lebanon in March 2019. (Photo: The United Nations Human Rights Council/Michael Muller)
In northern Lebanon I met a troupe of puppeteers who go from settlement to settlement performing shows for refugee children about the different towns and landmarks in their home country of Syria. While the show is entertaining for these children who are living in a bleak environment, its main purpose is to connect the kids with a place they don’t remember or, for most, have never been. The man who performs the show told me his concern as a Syrian is that these kids are the future of his country. They are the ones who will have to rebuild Syria. How can they do that if they don’t know anything about their homeland?
So, what can we do? In the face of complicated international conflicts that are the root cause of these problems, we need to put a face to the numbers of innocent people affected. Humanize it. We need to cut through the political malaise, especially as it fades from the headlines, to remind the world this is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. There are more than 68 million displaced people in the world. There are more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees. Within Syria itself, there are 6.6 million more internally displaced.
We need to support organizations like UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, so they can reach these people in need and provide them with life-saving support like shelter, medical assistance, access to education and psychosocial services to help them cope. On a broader level, we need to support the countries that are overwhelmed on an infrastructure level.
And, most importantly, we need to stand with these people. We must remember a refugee is a person, not a statistic. A refugee is a parent trying to protect their child from rats in a stable. A refugee is a boy doodling a picture of an airplane, who wants to someday be a pilot, but right now is selling vegetables on a busy road in a place that isn’t home.
Ben Stiller is an actor and a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR — the UN Refugee Agency. Follow him on Twitter @RedHourBen. Consider giving at fleeingsyria.org.
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