Friday 24 November 2017

Apocalypse now: Liam Cunningham and Niamh Horan travel to the Syrian border

He is best known for playing former smuggler Davos Seaworth in the smash-hit series 'Game of Thrones' but actor Liam Cunningham could not be more unlike the hard-man character that has made him world famous. As he visits two Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, he tells Niamh Horan why he's angry with Enda Kenny; about seeing his father's dignity robbed, and how it spurs him to strive for fairness and justice in ways that would make a knight proud.

Niamh Horan and Liam Cunningham on the Syrian border. Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Horan and Liam Cunningham on the Syrian border. Photo: David Conachy
Liam plays football with children in Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy
Liam in the kindergarten at Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy
Liam in Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy
Liam talks to Samer Othman (39) who fled Syria with his wife Shahinaz, (35) and their children Rawan (14), Yazan (13), Maan (10), and Rayan (7)

We can often find ourselves turning away from life when we are faced with too much pain and sadness. Sometimes it's easier to just turn the page or switch the news channel. Don't worry, for the most part, the majority of people live their lives in this way.

You see, people criticise journalists for writing about 'fluff'. For news stories about Kim Kardashian's latest diet, or Amal Clooney's wardrobe. However, people do read these articles, often turning away from other stories that matter.

Here's one example: In the early hours of Wednesday, August 21, 2013, homes in Damascus, Syria, were struck by rockets containing the chemical agent sarin.

In what has since been called 'Syria's darkest hour', the toxic nerve agent hit just before dawn, as families slept. To save you from the graphic details, let's just say the death it bestows on its victims isn't pretty.

Liam plays football with children in Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy
Liam plays football with children in Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy

The next day, rows of children's bodies were lined up for burial. They looked as though they were sleeping. Over 400 children were among the 1,400 people killed in the attack.

By the end of the week, the story was nowhere to be seen. Instead the 'most read' lists were topped by a story about Cheryl Cole and how she had just got a new tattoo of a giant rose on her back.

I try to explain this to Liam Cunningham at the end of our day visiting Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, but he becomes irate.

He is adamant that people do care. "A person has already made the effort once they open a paper or turn on the news," he says. "They want to know what's going on in the world around them. That in itself shows they care. But the problem is, most people say, 'that's terrible' and then move on. Because they find it too difficult to look at."

And yet, he says, "Every time you switch the channel or turn away - [do] you think you are protecting yourself? You're not. You are just denying the little portion of yourself that is your humanity and feels a connection."

Born in East Wall in inner-city Dublin, Liam grew up with a sense of injustice in his bones. His father worked on the docks, shovelling coal into boats. Each morning, his father would walk to the waterfront and ask if there was work for him for that day.

Liam in the kindergarten at Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy
Liam in the kindergarten at Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy

"He would come back looking like a coal miner. Many a time I saw him falling asleep over his dinner. I remember saying to myself, 'I am never going to end up owned like that'."


"By the man. By bosses who told me what to do and what days I could come in to work," he says, taking a long pull from his cigarette.

"Eventually he got treated like crap. His dignity was robbed. As a group, they were trying to do the right thing [to get better pay and conditions for workers] and they were laid off."

It initialled in Liam a rebellious streak and in his teens he became a bit of a punk. "I hate the unfairness of injustice. Anybody who thinks they are better than others or 'chosen' or feel they have an entitlement . . . be it through monarchy, government or money. I think we are all born the same. We are entitled to an equal shot at life."

Eventually, Liam learned a trade and became an electrician. It gave him a sense of freedom. "I had a toolbox and I could tell whoever I wanted to go and fuck themselves, and go off and work somewhere else."

Liam in Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy
Liam in Azraq camp. Photo: David Conachy

He married at 22. "I was married before I was even on a plane," he muses. He and his wife emigrated to Zimbabwe in Africa for three years while Liam worked, armed with a gun, erecting electrical poles in a safari park.

He describes days of bliss in the open air. At mealtimes, he would clean off the shovel with which he dug holes, and cook meat on it over an open fire.

When he returned to Ireland, he went back to work for the ESB. "Within a month, they put me back in my yellow van," he says. "I was married. I had to pay the bills and I felt, 'I have done this shit', but I wasn't brave enough to walk away."

His wife spotted an advert on the back page of The Irish Times calling for people to audition for acting school. It would turn his life around. He dug out his VHS of Apocalypse Now and played it on repeat, until he had mastered Marlon Brando's famous Colonel Kurtz monologue.

"Looking back now, I think, 'The cheek of me doing that fucking speech'," he laughs, taking a sip of his beer. "Not only one of the greatest actors of all time, but the speech itself . . . I had seen the film 19 times, and it was the first time I recognised the grey areas of the world."

Now, an ambassador for World Vision - a humanitarian organisation dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities to tackle poverty and injustice - Liam has come to Jordan to meet with Syrian refugees. They are living in temporary shacks while countries such as Ireland dither over granting them refuge.

Liam talks to Samer Othman (39) who fled Syria with his wife Shahinaz, (35) and their children Rawan (14), Yazan (13), Maan (10), and Rayan (7)
Liam talks to Samer Othman (39) who fled Syria with his wife Shahinaz, (35) and their children Rawan (14), Yazan (13), Maan (10), and Rayan (7)

At the time of writing, only 311 of the refugees, of the 4,000 promised by the Government, have been taken in. A little over one year since Alan Kurdi's death - the little boy whose photograph sparked millions of tweets and a worldwide outpouring of sympathy - Ireland has taken in just one unaccompanied child.

"I am very angry. I would love to sit down with Enda Kenny and put the case for refugees to him," Liam says.

As we cross the red, dusty desert to visit the first camp - at Azraq - barely a word is shared. The group - two World Vision workers, Liam, photographer David Conachy and myself - are transfixed by the landscape. The desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan, Liam points out, served as the backdrop for the movie The Martian - coming here is like landing on Mars.

A mere 50 miles from the Syrian border, the camp, with its thousands of tiny zinc and steel huts, rises up out of nowhere on the horizon.

The first thing that you notice is the children. As our car passes, they smile and wave. At a football pitch, which World Vision has set up, they are roaring at the top of their lungs, jumping for joy, as the ball hits the back of the net.

In the middle of the pitch one unusual looking boy, Mamoon, is stealing all the attention.

With tanned skin and fiery-red hair, he sticks like glue to the ball, chasing it up and down the pitch, jumping to meet it mid-air each time it comes in his direction.

His young friends watch enthralled from the sidelines. They tell us he trains on his own for six hours a day. It is one of many examples of the resilience of the human spirit in this desert limbo. Cartoon characters - from SpongeBob SquarePants to Tweety Bird - have been painted on the side of the huts for the children. Some families have put plants outside their doors. A woman sweeps the dust from her hut. Snapshots of dignity.

"It's the little details of life," says Liam. "The tiny things I identify with that remind me they are human beings with the same feelings as the rest of us."

In the camp's school, children no more than four years of age, dressed in their best clothes, are starting their educational life. It's difficult to imagine that these children were caught up in war zones only six months before.

As they draw flowers and pictures of the sun, the odd child sits staring into the distance. When I smile at them, their expression remains transfixed. I have never witnessed that look of horror before. It is the same thousand-yard stare that can be seen in the face of another Syrian child in another famous photograph of the war - five-year-old Omran Daqneesh. He was photographed in August, sitting dazed and bloodied in the back of an ambulance, having survived an airstrike in Aleppo.

I go outside and feel an arm around my shoulders. David, the photographer, has visited refugee camps before: "It's OK. It's OK to feel the way you are feeling," he says as I start to cry.

Afterwards, Liam - who visited refugee camps in Greece last spring - explains that everyone goes through the same. "I swore to myself I was going to try and be like you. To put on a strong front. And then it was a left-field thing that got me. A piece of paper with the number for the Samaritans on it. I hear the ads at home and I suddenly thought, 'Oh fuck, they are the same as us'."

During the day, Liam meets two families. In the first shack, there's a couple with five children lined up beside them on a mattress on the floor. The father, Ahmed Kayed, a sculptor, proudly shows us photographs of the ornate pieces he worked on in buildings in Syria. All bombed to pieces. Ahmed explains how, after seeing relatives killed in airstrikes and people eating grass to try to survive, he and his family escaped across the border in the dead of night.

Ahmed strapped his young children to himself and his wife, and they fled on a motorbike. Each night his young daughter Raneem (9) wets the bed because of the things she has witnessed. She has recurring nightmares of men with guns surrounding their tent.

When we ask what Raneem remembers about her country, the happy smile she has put on for the visitors crumbles in a flood of tears.

The family have nothing but a shelf in their shack and some colourful pet birds in a cage. But they are safe and they are together, and the love and warmth between them is palpable.

In the next hut, another father, Samer Othman, has gone to great lengths to try to create some semblance of a normal home. He has fixed a small TV to the wall, built a makeshift swimming pool for his children to play in from a tub and plastic sheeting, and created a small garden with stalks of corn.

However, there is a heavy sadness in the room. Samer's children huddle around him; one sits sleepily on his mother's lap, as Samer explains the choice with which they were faced.

The main road the family travelled along from Syria to Jordan was too dangerous for their 17-year-old daughter, Reem, to come with them. Because of her age and gender, there was a high chance she would have been abducted and raped, killed or sold. They married her to a local man who will look after her in Syria until they return. Sameer takes out a photograph. Reem now has a young baby. In her face lies a world of unhappiness. Shahinaz, her mother, is weeping on the couch.

"It was like I was slapped in the face. The first thing that went through my mind was 'monster'," Liam says afterwards. "But you understand he had no choice. What would you do in that situation? Can you imagine having to make that decision for your own child? When you hear these tragic stories, the feelings you get are visceral."

One of the World Vision workers explains that, unlike other aid camps she has visited elsewhere in the world, the refugees here are mainly middle-class professionals who, before the war, lived in homes similar to that of the average person in Ireland.

As Liam explains, "These are oncologists, judges, architects. They are so like you and me. They have had a really comfortable existence and so much has been taken off them. Not only have they watched their friends and family killed, but every fucking dream they once had has been shattered."

In between going from Azraq and Za'atari refugee camps, we head back to Amman, Jordan's capital, for the night.

Liam's appearance in Game of Thrones - he plays Davos Seaworth - has propelled him to international fame, so everywhere we go, groups of nervous fans are nearby, waiting to make their approach.

Liam parties on yachts, travels the world, staying in five-star hotels and is well aware how people view celebrity ambassadors. "Let's just shatter the illusion," he says. "I am not wealthy. I've lived in the same house for the past 30 years. I drive a 10-year-old car and, up until a year-and-a-half ago, my bank balance was in the red all the time.

"I got myself in fucking trouble with the tax man several years ago, and it has taken me fucking forever to pay it off. So for the last four or five years I have been playing catch-up trying to pay my penalties.

"The show is very popular, but there is a huge cast. We are not on big American fees. There are very few millionaires off the back of Game of Thrones."

Still, life is good and I wonder if part of doing this work is simply to ease his conscience?

"No, no, no. It's not about easing your conscience. It just means you have room for a conscience.

"Listen, I love a three-star Michelin meal and I love a Big Mac. And I don't deny myself a bit of fluff [in the media]. But that doesn't mean you don't have room for anything else. Forget about the politics. Forget about economics. This is about decency and humanity. These people need our help and I am just trying to add my voice."

To his credit, he has a huge reach. A video he took part in from refugee camps in Greece last spring reached five million views within a matter of days, then climbed right up to 40 million.

In Za'atari refugee camp on the second day, Liam is wrapping up a piece to camera, when I spot a young boy, no more than six or seven years of age, beside a cage of birds.

He looks over both shoulders to see if anyone is watching him, before bending down to pick up a piece of long, sharp wire. He slides it into the cage and starts to jab the birds in the chest until the entire flock are left cowering at the back of the box.

It is just one of many incidents of aggression we witnessed among the children in the camp. The parents tell us that the children are psychologically damaged and need help to process their feelings and the horrors they have witnessed.

As Liam explains, "There is no civil disorder in these camps, but some of the people have suffered incredible trauma. If anything, surely those children need help."

As David takes the last few , the school bell rings and hundreds of children run out on to the street. They are screaming and running up to Liam, carrying books in UN satchels on their backs and high-fiving the actor. And for that one moment they could be anywhere in the world - because they are happy.

Liam stresses how important people's donations are to fund the work World Vision does. From sanitation to shelter and education - and just to give people hope. The last thing Isil wants the West to do is to change the narrative of hate.

"You see, here is the thing," Liam says, "If you don't do that, what happens is they are uneducated until some bollox comes along and says: 'You need to get behind me. Take back what was taken from you. Here is a gun. Put this belt on you'. He feeds them and looks after them and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"In 1916 in Dublin, we had the biggest [rate of] postnatal deaths in Europe, the biggest red-light district in Europe and we had the worst slums in Europe. That forces people to do things."

He continues, "I get that people are worried about their mortgages and bills that have to be paid. They don't have time to worry about the Syrian refugees, and I get that. The thing about it is: when it gets worse and worse and worse and down the line, it's no longer restricted to these places. It's coming into Turkey, Germany, the edges of France and coming across to us, then, people will say: 'Fuck! Why didn't I go on a march when it was just about Iraq? When it was just about Syria? Why didn't I care then?"

I ask what he would like to come out of his trip to Jordan.

"I would appeal to people who still have a rebellious soul to do just one thing: Write to your local politicians and ask what they are doing about our promise to take in refugees. Tell them: 'If you don't do something about this, then there will be an election coming up soon'. Because if they don't care when there is a humanitarian crisis, then why do you think they would really give a damn about someone like you?

"I am saying all of this for one person," he says. "I want one person to come out and just do one thing. Write to your politician or donate to World Vision. Just one thing by one person," he repeats.

And it will make a difference.

World Vision is a child-focussed development and humanitarian aid agency working in 100 countries around the world. To support World Vision's work, tel: (01) 498-0800, or see

Photography by David Conachy

Sunday Independent

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