Forgotten Syrians need winter help, says author Gaiman

The world can’t forget the plight of Syrian refugees this winter despite the global upheaval caused by Covid-19, fantasy author Neil Gaiman said Tuesday as he helped launch the UN refugee programme’s cold weather appeal.

The award-winning writer said the pandemic had exposed weaknesses in governments’ ability to respond to crises, and should serve as a reminder that refugees are ordinary people dealing with upheaval.

“The thing that if anything 2020 has intensified, is that we are all one step away from being refugees,” Gaiman, Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, told AFP. 

“We all had plans for 2020. And God has laughed at all of our plans and given us a completely different 2020 instead. 

“For most refugees, that’s their plot too. They had plans for their life, they were trying to be where they were because most people like being where they are, and then everything went wrong,” he said.

Gaiman, famed for his surreal novels such as “American Gods” and “The Sandman” comic series, collaborated with hundreds of fans and artists to release a new animated version of his crowd-sourced poem, “What You Need to Be Warm”.

UNHCR has warned that winter 2020 — for some their ninth away from home — is likely to be the harshest yet for the more than six million Syrian refugees that fled their country during the near-decade long civil war.

Annual challenges such as snow and freezing temperatures will be harder to manage as Covid-19 has drastically affected relief campaigns. 

“It’s very easy to forget the refugee crisis, it’s very easy to forget that there are nearly 80 million people forcibly displaced right now in the world,” said Gaiman. “And we can’t forget them. 

“It’s getting really cold out there; it’s even colder if you’re living in a tent.”

Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Beirut, told AFP 2020 had been the “hardest year yet” for the one million Syrians exiled in Lebanon. 

She said many were struggling to survive freezing temperatures and torrential rains in makeshift shelters.

“Life is made even tougher by the devastating impact of Covid-19,” she said.

– ‘Right to be here’ –

To help raise awareness, Gaiman asked his followers on Twitter to share their memories of being warm. 

The more than 25,000 words he received in response were the inspiration behind the poem, which has now been turned in to an animated short drawing on artworks from artists and refugees.

“Twitter can be a cesspit,” he said. 

“It can be the worst place in the world and yet, sometimes, you can go out and say ‘what does it mean to be warm?’ and get 25,000 words of replies from people and all of them evoke memory, childhood, the joy of coming from a cold place to a warm place.”

Gaiman, who explained how many of his family members perished in the Holocaust, ends the poem with the line: “You have the right to be here”.

He said 2020 had shown the fragility of even democratic governments and modern health care systems, just as the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe laid bare the extent of human suffering in those fleeing conflict. 

“If Covid had got worse, if governmental handling of it got worse, I can absolutely see a world in which people are trying to figure out how to get out of the United Kingdom and to go somewhere else that’s safer,” said Gaiman. 

“It’s good to welcome people in because one day you may want to be welcomed.” 

The animated film and donation instructions for UNHCR’s Winter Appeal can be found at: www.unhcr.org/neilgaiman

by Patrick GALEY