A New Narrative for the Middle East: Told by Its Children

One minute, one camera, and one boy... is all it took to convey the tragedy of millions of childhoods lost to conflict in the Middle East.
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One minute, one camera, and one boy... is all it took to convey the tragedy of millions of childhoods lost to conflict in the Middle East.

Amar's film is disheartening. But if you walk away demoralized you will have missed the point he makes. Amar is a 15-year-old Syrian refugee, living in Zaatari camp, with a powerful message -- children from this region deserve better. He is not standing idle while the world dismisses the lives of children in Syria, Palestine or Iraq. Amar is part of a new generation of Arab boys and girls who have found the strength, the courage and the medium to tell their stories. He is asking the world to help him narrate a better plot for children in the Middle East.

Amar's film We Walk Their Path won one of UNICEF's OneMinutesJr global awards. He won for his ability to portray, so aptly, the horrors children witness in war, the way media report events and the tendency of children to copy what they see and learn from adults.

"I am very happy that people will see what's happening to children in Syria today but I made this film because I want the world to help Syrian children go back to school instead of becoming fighters like my friends in Syria."

Amar's message is all the more poignant because he cannot go to school anymore. Like so many boys affected by conflict across the region, he quit classes to help his father sustain their family of eight.

"I used to go to school and I would love to go back to school but it's not possible. Save the Children has a campaign to get children in Zaatari into the tent schools. They came to speak to me but I told them I need to earn money for my family."

Amar has given up his dream of one day becoming a doctor or an engineer to earn 5 Jordanian Dinars (or 7 USD) per day by pushing a trolley to help people with carrying heavy items around the camp.

Seven USD per day is the price of Amar working towards his dreams. The cost of him and the over 4.8 million Syrian children like him losing their futures is far greater. Too great for the Middle East and the world.

Some 2.75 million Syrian boys and girls don't go to school, 2.3 million in Syria and over 626,200 in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq or Egypt. An estimated one in ten school-aged refugee children, or approximately 32,500, work. Boys, in particular, are expected to contribute to their families' income by working on the street, in agriculture, or other harsh conditions.

Syrian refugee girls are affected too, in different -- but equally terrible -- ways. Sexual harassment on the street, in stores, by bathrooms and by food distribution sites has resulted in one in three women and girls surveyed stating that they are too afraid to leave home. They do not walk to school for fear of predators. They drop out of school to look after siblings so their parents can work. They get married before they're 18 years old, at alarmingly higher numbers (between 2013 and 2014, there was a 25 percent increase) to lessen the burden on their families and protect their honor.

When did the onus fall on boys and girls to uphold the honor of their families and communities? And when will the international community honor its responsibility under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect every child, including the seemingly invisible children of the Middle East?

UNICEF declared 2014 a devastating year for children, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Amar is living proof of that.

Yet, he has found a way to turn his devastation into his new dream.

"I want to be a film-maker now. I plan on making more videos with my camera. I hope to tell the stories of children from Syria and all over the Middle East."

Amar is one boy with one camera but there are millions of minutes of children's lives that cameras cannot record. He has no shortage of stories of death, destruction and desperation to film. But if he continues to be as wise and hopeful as he is today, he will abandon that plot for a more compelling one. He would tell the stories of boys and girls, like him, who have found the medium to spread a message of hope.

Amar would tell the stories of boys, like Jafar from Iraq, who, last month in the United Nations in New York, reminded the world of the impact of war on children... Jafar told of his father being killed before his eyes and how that has forever changed his life. Like Amar, Jafar has plenty of reasons to be angry but his message is one of peace and hope. His dream is of an Iraq he can help make safe for children.

Amar would also tell the stories of girls like Farah from Gaza. Farah's courage to relay her experience during the last attacks on Gaza has won her over 190,000 followers on Twitter today. She describes the daily struggles of Gazans and her dream to be a lawyer and of traveling the world one day.

Amar would tell the stories of boys and girls across the Middle East who are reimaging the future for their region. And, one day, others will make a film about Amar's journey, of how his one minute film changed the course of his life, of how 7 USD per day did not prevent him from going to school... and of how an Arab boy living in a refugee camp defied the odds.

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