Refugee children sing 'Jingle Bells' in Lebanon - on the border of hell
Published 11/12/2015 | 02:30
It's the last thing you'd expect to see on the border of war-torn Syria. There's a fully decorated Christmas tree and 10 children on stage in Santa costumes, dancing and singing 'Jingle Bells' in Arabic.
Just over the snow-capped mountains lies the hell of their chaotic homeland where the brutal civil war between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and various factions, including the terror group Isil, continues to rage.
In Lebanon's Bekaa valley, children living in the most dire of circumstances are preparing a festive performance for their parents.
The show the Muslim children are rehearsing is designed to help prevent sectarian divisions growing and the risk of future radicalisation by the likes of Isil.
It will be performed "with full respect to their own religion", says Maria Assi, the founder of Lebanese agency Beyond Association, which is working with Unicef to bring some joy to their difficult lives.
"When they first came here … they were traumatised from war. But after they started the music lessons you could tell the difference from the smiles on their faces," said their teacher Mouaz (33), who fled the conflict himself.
Some 430 children attend the centre run by the two agencies which provides them with some schooling and a chance to have some much-needed fun.
Unicef Goodwill Ambassador Anne Doyle visited earlier this month. The broadcaster sang along with the children's rendition of 'Jingle Bells', but as Gaeilge.
There are literally thousands of children's stories that could be told.
Amina is four but says she's five. Her favourite part of the day in her kindergarten class is when the teacher tells them stories.
Five-year-old Ali's favourite food is bananas and his little brother Yacaoub (3) prefers ice-cream. They don't see much of either treat.
They attend class with Amina in a plastic tent where the main measures to keep out the cold are the jackets, hats and scarves they all wear inside.
The cruel winter of 2014/2015 saw a series of snow storms with temperatures plummeting as low as minus 14. Maria estimates that as many as 40 Syrian refugees died due to the cold.
There are 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a small country of four million people roughly the size of Cork and Kerry combined.
"Usually, what we expect is a war or a natural disaster," said Maria. "But to think anything like this number of refugees would cross the border? No one expected half of these numbers."
Many of the refugees live in makeshift camps that can be seen scattered all over the Bekaa Valley.
Food is scarce, sanitation is basic where it exists, and their life savings are dwindling, paying rent for the land where they've built their hovels from plastic and scraps of wood.
Child labour is rampant in the potato fields of the valley.
Thirteen-year-old Rama's hands are covered in cuts and scars from her job peeling garlic for the Lebanese restaurant industry so that her family can survive.
Her dream is to become a doctor, but she can't always go to school as she often works up to 12 hours a day with her mother Zoubayda (50) and sister Iman (26) for as little as $5 between them.
Her father Abed (65) has cancer and her brothers search for work every day, but to no avail. Employers in Lebanon who give refugees jobs tend to prefer to employ women or children. They're paid less.
The family fled Syria three years ago as the war intensified.
"We saw houses being bombed. We saw dead people in the streets," Zoubayda recalled.
Of their living conditions in Lebanon, she says: "It's all bad. No food, no clothes, no proper sleep.
"We have nothing but I thank God we are alive."
"Of course, we would prefer Rama to go to school," her mother says.
"It's a shame because she's a good student. She wants to learn and she needs to learn.
"This is the reality of how we live."
She said they ultimately hoped to return to Syria when there's peace, but for now she wished they could be relocated to Europe.
It's not hard to see why so many Syrian refugees have risked the dangerous sea crossings. Other desperate parents have even gone so far as to agree to requests over social media from wealthy men in the Gulf States to marry their daughters, who can be as young as 13 or 14.
Beyond Association runs mobile medical units providing basic healthcare along with Unicef and also provides psychological support to children who have been traumatised by the war.
Father-of-two Khalid (45) was a factory manager in Syria before fleeing with his family in 2013.
He teaches art to help the most traumatised youngsters. "Many of these children have witnessed violence. They have seen some of their parents or their family or friends die and they have experienced massive bombings.
"We are trying to replace this trauma with happiness," he explained.
It's a slow process. The children draw pictures of soldiers shooting each other, fathers beating mothers, and desperately sad self-portraits of themselves cowering in the corner.
"My approach consists of talking with the child. I will ask them 'what do you like most?' So what happens is I tell them 'draw what you feel when you are happy'."
He fears there will be a "lost generation" of Syrian children scarred by war who have received no proper education.
"What's the future of these children? These are the children that are supposed to rebuild Syria," he said.
"If I have to work 24 hours to fill this education gap in the refugee population, I will do it," he said.
Anne Doyle said what she saw in Lebanon left her "sad, glad and mad".
"I was sad because you couldn't but be sad, but glad to see the very positive work that was being done - particularly those mobile medical units.
"I was mad at the stupidity and futility of it all ... This is their lives. And why? And for what?"
Unicef’s campaign this winter is to distribute a winter clothing to every child in need, as well as providing blankets, school heating, and cash assistance for families to buy fuel.
Anyone who would like to donate to the campaign can click here