Syria: No strings

Three Syrian children seek refuge over the Turkish border where teachers try to help them cope with the trauma of war.

Over the past three years, many of the small towns on the Turkish side of Syrias’s northern border have been inundated with refugees fleeing the conflict. Kilis is one of these towns, in 2013 it was estimated to be home to 40,000 Syrian refugees, and this figure is steadily rising.

Most of the Syrian refugees are children – many of them have been exposed to severe trauma, all have faced agonising hardships.

Mohamad, Noor and Farid are three Syrian refugee children who all reside in Kilis, though live through different refugee experiences.

All the kids are unified by a struggle that does not normally make the headlines – the battle to regain their childhood. But the landscape they live in is not devoid of hope and help is at hand from a group of Syrian teachers who are about to use a surprising tool to help children cope with the traumas of war – puppetry.

From simple hand puppets to an elaborate puppet movie produced abroad, the teachers learn how to use puppetry to help Syrian children deal with the daily hardships of being a refugee.

Witness meets three Syrian children seeking refuge over the Turkish border and follows the work of the Syrian teachers trying to help kids cope with the traumas of war.


By Karim Shah

War destroys childhood. It is estimated that today over one million Syrians are taking refuge in Turkey, the majority of which are children. Although now out of the range of artillery, the formative years of these kids are still under relentless attack, not by bullets and bombs but from poverty and the traumatic memories of a bloody conflict.

I met Syrian children in Turkey living in many different environments. Over 200,000 people are housed in prefabricated refugee camps, maintained and controlled by the Turkish government.

On one occasion I was with two Syrian friends at a cafe when, by chance, we found ourselves sitting next to a British NGO worker, fresh into his first few weeks in Turkey. He was impressed with the Turkish government. With much enthusiasm he commended the camps; the prefab containers are sturdy, have electricity, there is a school and, importantly, it offers a safe space for children. He cheerfully announced, “It’s a great job, some of the best camps I’ve ever seen, they’re really lucky”.

I could not look at my Syrian friends – no camps are great, and it’s hard to palette the word “lucky” in the same sentence as “refugee”. Yet it is true that life for refugees living outside the official camps can be a lot more difficult. Many Syrians rent private accommodation, with the state of these dwellings depending on their wealth. I have met families of 14 living in two rooms and others paying hundreds of dollars a month to call a car garage or a horse stable their new home.

The most pitiful conditions are for those in makeshift camps like 10-years-old Mohamed who we meet at the beginning of this film. Unlike the government camps, these settlements have no access to water or electricity, they are predominately very basic tents made from tarpaulin and blankets. Exposed to the extremes of each season, Mohamed poignantly and poetically described his experience, “Assad bombs, Erdogan cold”.

No matter where refugee children are now living they cannot escape war. The Turkish border town of Kilis is where most of my film was shot. As children run around the playground of the Kilis refugee camp, plumes of smoke can occasionally be seen in the background; the aftermath of aerial barrel bombs attacks on Azas, the first Syrian town over the border.

Kids told me that they sometimes feel the ground shake from the shockwaves. TV sets are locked to rolling news, filling the barest of abodes with images of death and destruction. Kids get caught in the crossfire of the adult’s conversations, fluctuating from the details of the war to the hardships of making ends meet.

It is hard for kids not to become politicised. Many kids have an arsenal of phrases condemning Assad, though these can sound borrowed from the adults, the feelings of anger and fear are sadly genuine.

I was once having lunch at a friend’s home and his beautiful nieces and nephews were the life of the humble room, making the whole family smile and laugh. Suddenly a media message popped up on a mobile phone, delivering footage of an attack on their town earlier that morning. We huddled around the phone; images of destruction and agonising screams were amplified. I looked up from the phone to meet the gaze of my friends five-year-old niece, and I realised that these children have no escape from the war.

Education affords some kids a respite from these brutal memories. A two-story brick school stands at the centre of the Kilis refugee camp and, given the noisy clatter of little voices and colourful rucksacks running around, one could feel like they are in any decent school around the world.

Outside of the camps the town also provides a school for Syrian children. It is hugely oversubscribed so even though it runs classes in two shifts, it cannot accommodate everyone. But some parents do not send their kids to school. When I asked why, I was told that the school was too far away. I was surprised by this answer because the school was maybe 20 minutes’ walk away. But I guess the reasoning is simple – this is still a foreign country to them, many have lost so much, they now want to keep all their loved ones close and safe.

This is why the ‘child-friendly spaces’ featured in this film are so vital. Those little blue tents act like bunkers where children are protected from a bombardment of the adult’s talk of war, a safe space where they can forget the conflict, even if it is only for a few hours a week, where they can play, dance, sing and just be kids again.

The ‘child-friendly spaces’ are not meant to replace a primary education but in many neighbourhoods they are the closest thing to a school. They employ Syrian teachers, people that the kids can relate to, and who have been through the same experiences. Although some of teachers worked in education in Syria, many come from different backgrounds. I met engineers, lawyers, undergraduates and postgraduates, all working with young children for the first time. It became clear to me that for the teachers this was not just a job but part of the effort to resuscitate their society.

One of the tools that the teachers now have is a series of educational puppet films produced by a charity called ‘No Strings’. The quality of the production is astounding, using many of the puppet makers and puppeteers integral to shows like Fraggle Rock and the Muppet Show. Since 2005, ‘No Strings’ have produced six puppet films, delivering lifesaving messages to children in well over a dozen countries. The messages have ranged from land mine awareness in Afghanistan to natural disaster survival in the Philippines. I met Johnie McGlade, the founder of ‘No Strings’, a few years ago. When I heard he had made some films aimed directly at Syrian children, I had to find out how these films would be used, so I followed Johnie to Turkey and that is how this documentary started.

To complement the puppet films, ‘No Strings’ held a workshop in Kilis, inviting teachers working with Syrian children from all over Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and inside Syria. During a week of workshops, the teachers shared a wealth of experience from working with refugee children and also learned how to create puppets and use them as a tool to deal with trauma.

Nearly every person in the workshop had lived through harrowing events; most were now refugees themselves and had lost loved ones in terrible ways. Yet over the course of a week, stories of protests, shelling and bloodshed were overtaken by creative games, weird-looking puppets, dancing and jokes. I came to realise that a space to play, laugh and smile was as sorely needed for these adults as for the children that they are dedicated to help.