Try The Bitter: The Next Generation of Syrian Talent in the Bekaa Valley

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Photo: Dominic Minghella


By Dominic Minghella, writer and producer

Last September I glanced up as the door of the house opposite opened and my neighbor brought her kids out for a photo of her darlings in their new school uniforms. Blazers hanging sensibly loose. Faces fresh with the excitement and apprehension of a new year, a new class, a new teacher.

It made me laugh. Not five minutes earlier, I too had positioned my children at the front door and made them hold still, despite the itch of that not-yet-removed label at the back.

Why do we do this? Isn't school horrible? By and large we hated it ourselves, and yet we inflict the same on our children.

At just this time, I became involved with A World At School, an initiative of the charity Theirworld which, by hook or by crook, gets Syrian refugees into school. Their world invited me and my colleagues at Silverfish Media to Lebanon to film their work there -- an enterprise which, via a plethora of partnerships, is making school a real possibility for hundreds of thousands of displaced kids.

I admit I hesitated. There had to be more pressing emergencies. The airwaves at the time were full of the tragedy on the Mediterranean, and the long, desperate march of the migrants. For those who have found some sort of sanctuary in Lebanon (and more than a million have done so) surely there was no immediate concern?

And after all, school is horrible.

But as the stories came in, of the likes of Mayass and Ahmad and Nour, deprived of education and facing grim alternatives (barely-paid labor for the boys, and child marriage for the girls) I began to feel my hackles rise. What are kids supposed to do if they don't go to school? It's not just the short-term misery of it -- what is their future? How can they succeed and contribute as adults if they have missed out on school? They would be forever needy. If the term "lost generation" ever applied anywhere, it would surely apply here. How would they ever rebuild their lives? How would they ever return to, and rebuild, their country?

I was right to think that. But it's not just about what young people need. It's about what they can give back. They aren't empty vessels, chicks in a nest, open-mouthed recipients of largesse. They have something to offer. They have talents.

In the Bekaa Valley, with the peaks of Syria's Anti-Lebanon range in the distance, we met three young boys -- Samir, Abdulrahman and Mohamed -- who are big-time into rap music. They live in a shack at the end of a row of shops, the size of a garage, and so they are some of the luckier refugees. And, luckier still, space has been found for them in school. As their rap has it: to know sweetness, you need to try the bitter.

They know bitter I'll spare you the details - and they know this is sweet. They learn, if for nothing else, to improve their artistry, and their classmates are delighted test audiences.

But there are many who aren't so lucky. Hundreds of thousands of them. While we were filming, a man approached me and complained in steady, firm, but anguished Arabic. Our translator explained: he couldn't find a school for his kids. This dad was in utter despair: what was he supposed to do to give his children a chance? What was he supposed to do? Long after the translator had gone, he continued to describe his situation. He knew I couldn't understand him. But perhaps he knew I understood enough to get the message: a parent whose children have missed one, two, three years of school - with no hope in sight, with the clock ticking cruelly on their childhoods - is a parent in agony.

You don't need a translator for that. You need one dad to see another dad's face. And just as that core instinct to parent is universal, so too is the ambition for education to do more than just deliver the basics. Parents share a further aspiration: for our youngsters to find that extra special something - their 'thing', their passion, their talent - which will make them uniquely them, and give them their role in the world.

Returning to the classroom in Lebanon is not just school. It's an escape from a past of untold horror and loss. It's an escape from a present of domestic drudgery or childhood marriage or child labor. And it's a springboard to a future of self-expression, of fulsome contribution. For Mayass it could be as a doctor. For Ahmad, the budding engineer, it could mean literally rebuilding his homeland. For the rapper brothers, Samir, Abdulrahman and Mohamed, it could be a career in music. Like your kids and mine, they have dreams. The chance to have their talent nurtured and admired. Fame, perhaps, and fortune. Or at least a contribution made. It's the chance to live, really.

My neighbor's photo appeared later that September day on my Facebook timeline. Along with my own and those of family friends in this country and beyond. I scrolled through a collage of new beginnings; pencils and minds sharpened, ready for the new term. There is a headiness to this readiness which makes parents everywhere want to capture it and share it. Because these are the kids' milestones, and they are ours. Their futures, and ours.

School may be horrible. But there's something worse than having to go to school. And that's having no school to go to. To know sweetness, you need to try the bitter.

Please watch the film 'Straight Outta Syria' featuring the brothers rapping.

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Dominic Minghella is a writer and producer working in television and film, best known for creating the international hit series, Doc Martin.