A No Strings Puppet Workshop For Children From Syria
By Rosie Waller, No Strings International
No Strings International makes puppet films that bring to life crucial messages for children in disasters, poverty and war around the world, with their current focus on Syria. Here, Rosie Waller, one of the UK team based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, recalls a recent No Strings workshop on the Syrian border for adults tasked with supporting the conflict’s emotional impact on children
One man’s son is terrified of the stars at night, like they’re bombs falling. Another says how his little boy shares all his food with his sister who has lived in quiet shock since the family were forced over the border by fighting. They all say their children yearn for the day they go back home, the longed-for end of the war.
In the radiant yellow sun adults draw a picture interpreting the No Strings film they’ve watched in readiness to show it to children. But in a country where they’re strangers, they paint it greyish, the sky dim.
We’re in a room with about 40 Syrian refugees who work as facilitators in child-friendly spaces along the border, plus a dozen senior figures from neighbouring countries similarly focused on children affected by the crisis. As a result of a partnership with leading international NGO CRS, the No Strings film Out of the Shadows has sparked deep discussions about living with trauma, demonstrating how children struggle to make sense of the terrible things they have seen or have happened to them.
The participants are confident the children they work with will react similarly, that they’ll have lots to say about the puppet characters who they all identify with in some way or another, and that this will ultimately help them talk about their own feelings and make sense of their own fears and different ways of coping.
Because it’s a deeply moving story about a brother and sister who have lost everything, including their own parents, the film needs to be very sensitively followed up, facilitated by people who are aware of the difficult feelings it can evoke. From sadness comes hope, however, and strength. The film talks of the power we have inside us to go forward, the strength we can gain from helping someone, perhaps just by making them laugh, and how big a little thing like that can be.
It’s near the end of 2013 and we’re in a town called Kilis on the Turkish / Syrian border which hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to, many of them settling here in camps or in flats they’re able to rent. While our workshop involves much discussion and practical application on how to use the films, there are three leading TV puppeteers with us as part of the No Strings Creative Team.
We’ve done similar work in many countries around the world, training local staff to help get the most out of films that include disaster preparedness (South East Asia), landmine awareness (Afghanistan), HIV and gender awareness (East / Southern Africa), child protection messages and water, sanitation and hygiene awareness (Haiti), for example. The films are gripping puppet stories, but contain deep and meaningful messages. Made by some of the leading artists from the original Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock, they never fail to enthrall children.
The purpose of the workshop is to then give those children the opportunity to explore and interpret the messages in ways that make sense on a personal level, through puppet activities that spark a deeper emotive response. Children make puppets, either shadow, table top or hand / sock puppets, and then make them come alive with a story of their own around one of the key messages.
Four days into this latest workshop and all 50 participants visit a school run especially for Syrian refugee children, quite a nice building but with tiny classrooms packed full of 50 or 60 kids each. We show the peace film, Red Top, Blue Top, as this is less demanding emotionally, and 280 children under the age of 13 sit transfixed in the small school hall. Afterwards, they go to their classrooms, and the participants lead them through games and activities designed to help the children express themselves around the profound issues in the films.
“It was amazing,” one of the participants comments later. “We saw how much the children loved the film, and how all the methodology we’ve been learning has helped it make sense to them. We helped them make puppets and we gave them little shows. Then we got them to do little shows themselves based around particular issues, like how we’re all more alike than we are different. When we were leaving all the children were saying, this is the best day ever, don’t go, please come back.”
“It’s quite simple,” says No Strings founder Johnie McGlade. “Puppets are the best teaching tool there is. They are absorbing, they make sense to children, to adults even, they bring out our creativity, they work on every level and they make learning meaningful as well as fun.”
Back at the workshop after the school visit and lunch there’s a disco going on in the classroom, a spontaneous outburst of happiness after the morning’s success. The participants, without exception, are lovely people, so full of fun and humanity despite everything that’s happened to them. This is a simple tool at the end of the day that isn’t going to make the war go away, but we’ve seen little miracles occur and that is something indeed to celebrate.
The workshop is an emotional roller-coaster, some of us confess later to tears. It’s too much to put into words. Maybe a rolled-up newspaper man, one of the table top puppets they’ve been working on, would express it better! This is a sad place in many ways, but the determination and the sheer creativity of the people we’ve worked with is extraordinary. It’s not like we hope they’ll take this work forward. We know they will. And we know they’ll do it magnificently.