When it comes to child refugees, we are often confronted with an endless stream of statistics. While the numbers are shocking – 10,000 child refugees are considered missing by Europol – figures often fail to show the face of the crisis. They do not humanise the story. They do not help us even come close to understanding the plight of these children. But War Child does.
A groundbreaking documentary following three child refugees as they make their treacherous journey across Europe in the hope of finding sanctuary, War Child is narrated solely by youngsters: 11-year-old Emran from Afghanistan, 12-year-old Hussein, also from Afghanistan, and Rawan – a 12-year-old girl from Syria. It is their voices and nobody else’s that guide us through their experiences. War Child – like Exodus: Our Journey to Europe (a series which was, in part, filmed by the migrants themselves) – captures the crisis from the point of view of refugees.
What stands out the most about War Child, and what will stay with you long afterwards, is its illustration of how a whole generation of refugees are being deprived of their childhood. Emran, Hussein and Rawan’s youthful innocence in the film jars with the complex and adult nature of the refugee crisis. Whether it’s the contrast of these themes, or shots of sunlight bouncing off the riot shields of the Greek border police – it’s the clash of light and dark that makes this documentary powerful.
“The Taliban started killing children as they walked to school, so my father sent me to Europe,” says Emran, almost matter-of-factly. The trauma that these children are exposed to means they are growing up much too fast. They see people with guns held to their heads, they get caught up in violent exchanges between migrants and police, they are forced to deal with smugglers (and sometimes hurt or held hostage by them) and they are at risk from criminal gangs that are rife in Macedonia, where minors are targeted for sex abuse and slavery.
Their responsibilities, too, are distinctly adult. The children map routes across borders, Rawan cooks for her mother, father and four siblings and Emran and Hussein collect firewood. Their understanding of money is astonishing. When documentary maker Jamie Roberts asks Emran why his family aren’t with him, the answer is money. When Rawan explains why the smugglers keep her and her family hostage, the reason is money. These children aren’t worrying about how many 20p coins they’ll have for pick’n’mix on a Friday. They have by-passed the frivolous preoccupations that so many western children enjoy, and their problems are prematurely adult.
But despite how grown up they are having to be, there is no escaping the fact that they are children. Rawan wears her hair in plaited pigtails. When Emran cries because he misses his parents, he is trying to be brave and not show it, as all 11-year-old boys would. The camera captures his eyes brimming and his face beginning to crumple, but he looks away and, embarrassed and infuriated, tries to hide the tears. It’s heartbreaking. Later, he shows off a swing he made out of sticks and cloth in one of the camps. He throws his head back in laughter and delight.
Even the way Emran describes his friend Hussein, who he met on the boat to Greece, is childlike. “Hussein is my best friend, I play with him every day.” Hussein and his other friends play “the refugee game” – a version of “it” or “chase” where one child pretends to be the police and the others run for their lives.
A quote from Rawan serves to encompass the morphed, tainted, and ultimately stolen childhood of refugee children. “I was young in Syria. The road to here made me grow older.” War Child has given refugee children a voice – now it’s up to us to fight for their childhood.
War Child is on Channel 4 tonight at 10.30pm