Syrian teens tell UNICEF envoy Liam Neeson about tough exile

AP Photo
AP Photo/Sam McNeil

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Liam Neeson got a little break from being famous. Sitting on the floor of a community center courtyard with two dozen local teens, he listened attentively as young Syrian refugees – who had no idea that he’s a Hollywood star – talked about the struggles of exile.

A 15-year-old girl said she was bullied in school. A boy of the same age said he used to get into fights.

“They are all our children,” Neeson, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. child agency, later told The Associated Press. “They want peace, they want to be recognized.”

Neeson’s visit to Jordan this week was his first to the troubled Middle East on behalf of UNICEF, one of a number of U.N. agencies and aid groups trying to ease the plight of displaced Syrians and their overburdened host communities.

Nearly 5 million Syrians, half of them children, have fled civil war at home since 2011 and settled in neighboring countries, mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

Jordan hosts close to 660,000 displaced Syrians. Most live in Jordan’s poorest communities where locals often complain that the influx is pushing up rents and driving down wages.

On Tuesday, Neeson and his son Micheal, 21, visited a community center in a working-class neighborhood of Jordan’s capital of Amman. At the center, operated by the community development group Johud, Syrian and Jordanian teens get to know each other in after-school sessions. The program is funded by UNICEF and run by the Jordan-based group Generations For Peace.

After watching the teens compete in a relay race, the 64-year-old actor sat in a circle with them on the tiled floor of the courtyard to hear their stories.

Ahmed, a 15-year-old Syrian, said he used to get into fights with a Jordanian boy from the neighborhood. Now they are like brothers, he said. Reema Mohammed, 15, a refugee from the Syrian capital of Damascus, said a Jordanian girl in her school used to bully her and that the center’s program helped her handle the situation.

Neeson later said in an interview that he was particularly inspired by the Syrian girls, including those he met during a tour of Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, on Monday.

“I thought they would be more oppressed because of their culture, and of course because of the ordeals they have been going through, coming from Syria, the horrors there,” he said. “These girls I met, yesterday and … again here today, they are so positive, so eager and keen to learn.”

“I asked them … what their goals were in life, in an ideal world what would they want to be,” he said, adding that responses included mathematician, engineer, police inspector and teacher. “To see these girls being empowered by education and the focus in their eyes was incredibly humbling and very moving,” he said.

Still, UNICEF says that about 700,000 school-age Syrian refugees across the region are missing out on education, either because there is no space for them in overcrowded local schools or because they have to work and support their families. In Jordan and Lebanon, many schools are running double shifts to try to accommodate the refugee children.

Asked about the backlash against Syrian refugees in Europe and the U.S., Neeson said that “we in the West tend to have a bias” against Muslims, a “sweeping generalization because of what these fanatical fundamentalist groups will do in the name of God, in the name of Allah.”

Neeson said he grew up with violent conflict – between Protestants and Catholics – in his native Northern Ireland.

“I kind of grew up cautious, very, very cautious,” he said. “I have kind of seen it in some of the kids here, in their eyes but once you engage them and talk to them that rapidly disappears.”

Neeson has appeared in more than 70 films, including the 1993 Best Picture winner “Schindler’s List,” the action trilogy “Taken,” George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode 1 – Phantom Menace” and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”

His upcoming releases include another Scorsese film, “The Silence,” about two Jesuit priests who face persecution in 17th century Japan, and “Felt” about the FBI agent who under the name “Deep Throat” helped uncover the Watergate scandal.

Next summer, Neeon will start shooting “The Trainer,” set in Ireland and centered on the relationship between a horse trainer and a troubled refugee from Eastern Europe.

In Jordan, Neeson took his apparent lack of celebrity status among the local teens in stride.

“I was appalled,” he said, jokingly, when asked how he felt when he realized they really didn’t know who he was. “It is kind of refreshing … (the kids) saying, ok, thanks for coming to our school, but who are you?” he said, laughing.

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