Je Veux Jouer - which means I want to play - started out as a theatre production in Canada, highlighting the need for children fleeing the Syrian war to have some semblance of a normal childhood. It’s success has now spawned a charity which organises workshops to help children be just that, children.
“I wrote the play because I felt that Syrian kids had suffered enough and were losing their childhood,” one of the founders of Je Veux Jouer, Chadi Alhelou, told me. "We think we always need to give them food and school, but to me childhood is one word, it’s playing…by working on the ground we have found that kids who don’t play aren’t normal kids” he said.
Backed by sponsors in Canada the charity has spent the last few weeks in Gaziantep in the south-east of Turkey. The city, close to the Syrian border, is home to around 350,000 refugees, many of them children. Volunteers have been engaging with some of the younger children through dance classes and theatre groups, while older children have had the opportunity to make short films.
One volunteer told me some of the children had appeared emotionless when they began the workshops, unable to participate or connect with those around them. But slowly through play they began to open up and express themselves. By the end of the two weeks, we fully engaged with all the children.
Though children are the main focus of this charity, it also holds film and animation workshops for adults. The idea is to give refugees skills they may be able to use in the future, but it’s also about telling their stories now. The hope is that will help them come to terms with their own experiences, what they witnessed in Syria and becoming refugees.
Ayham Salam is originally from Damascus; he’s now a refugee living in Gaziantep. He took part in the animation workshops, using plastic toy soldiers and tanks to reflect attacks by the Syrian regime. “Almost all of us have witnesses and suffered through extensive destruction in our neighbourhoods,” he said. The set, a city scene of Damascus, was built using painted polystyrene form while real images of the attacks are screened in the background.
The cumulation of the workshops was a show by the children for their parents and friends where they performed the small productions they had created, along with the dance moves and the songs they had learned. But Chad Alhelou says the show's final aims more than that. “When we leave we need parents and teachers to take over from us and make sure their children play,” he said. And by showing them how much their children have gained through the simple act of playing, Je Veux Jouer hopes they will take on the mantle.
The charity says it will come back to Gaziantep to run more classes in the future, but it’s also trained up some of the adults to continue the workshops. Je Veux Jouer is also helping to build playgrounds for children in refugee camps, giving them a space to play freely.