Neil Gaiman may be best known for his works of fiction, from his comic book series, The Sandman, to his popular novels, Stardust and American Gods. However, it is his latest work, very much grounded in reality, that the English author hopes will have the greatest impact.
On Tuesday, Mr Gaiman is launching a new video campaign in collaboration with the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, to help raise funds to support Syrian refugees in the Middle East throughout the winter season.
Much of the funding raised will be dedicated to refugees in Lebanon, where families are facing a record-breaking level of “extreme poverty” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the UNHCR.
‘There are people out there…who need help’
Speaking with The Independent on Monday in a video call from his home in Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Mr Gaiman, who has served as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador since 2017, said it was more important now than ever for people to give what they can to support refugees around the world.
“It’s very easy when you are dealing with your own nightmares and your own problems — and all of us are dealing with them through 2020 — to forget that there are people out there who have less than you and who need help and who are now having to cope with things like Covid in camps,” Mr Gaiman said.
In an effort to draw attention to the UNHCR’s Winter Appeal, which provides financial support to help refugees get through the season, Mr Gaiman has released a new video in which the author recites his poem,What You Need to Be Warm, as animated scenes depicting each line play out, from a child warming up in front of a radiator, to the author himself donning a series of animated coats and outerwear.
The poem was first published in 2019 to help shine a light on how difficult the winter months can be for refugees around the world and the artwork featured in the new video was crowdsourced from the contributions of hundreds of artists from all walks of life, including schoolchildren, fans and long-established artists and animators. In total, more than 900 artworks were contributed to the cause after Mr Gaiman put out the call for submissions to his more than 2.4 million followers on Twitter.
“I think this is, in a lot of ways, the hardest time of all. That was why I loved the idea of us taking the poem I wrote about warmth…and going okay, well, we did a thing about the cold and winter and refugees and this year, it’s worse,” Mr Gaiman said.
“It’s not like any of that is better than it was in winter of 2019. Everything now is 10 times worse, 50 times worse, 100 times worse. So, let’s see what we can do to fix it or at least improve it in some way. ”
Indeed, speaking with The Independent, UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled said Syrian refugees in Lebanon are facing what is likely to be their most difficult winter yet.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and due to the compounding impacts Lebanon’s economic crisis, the proportion of refugees falling below the extreme poverty line of making less than $3 a day has soared to a record-breaking nearly 90 per cent, compared with 55 per cent in 2019.
‘The situation is very dramatic’
“On top of the economic crisis, Covid-19 has obviously had a huge impact on the ability of refugees to find work because most of them were working or finding daily labour opportunities and unfortunately, most of them have lost those opportunities during lockdowns and as other confinement measures were taken,” Ms Abou Khaled said.
The explosion that rocked Beirut in August, she noted, has also taken a toll on refugees, with some living in the country’s capital seeing their homes damaged or destroyed, while many have suffered from the economic fallout of the disaster.
“Like everyone affected by the blast, some refugees were living in some of the poorest neighbourhoods affected by the blast and its impacts and they are will now be exposed to the winter elements,” Ms Abou Khaled said.
“So, basically, 90 per cent of refugees need help to survive,” the UNHCR spokesperson said. “This where the situation stands unfortunately, right now. The situation is very dramatic. It’s very serious.”
The UNHCR spokesperson warned that the agency was seeing of an “increasing level of despair” among refugees “due to the very precarious economic situation”.
“The level of depression, attempted suicide and self-harm amongst refugees has increased dramatically in the past few months in Lebanon,” she said.
However, Ms Abou Khaled noted, refugees around the world are in dire need of support.
In a statement shared with The Independent through the UNHCR, Samira, a Syrian living in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, which was built for refugees of the Syrian Civil War, said the message behind Mr Gaiman’s poem is one that resonates deeply.
“All of us, and I speak for all Syrians, have been through what [Neil] describes in the poem,” said Samira, who helped with the art design of another project featuring words from Mr Gaiman’s poem.
“There were points when we could not find food to feed our children when…there was nothing to cover our children with to keep them warm. All of us have gone through this journey,” she said.
‘A lifesaving program’
The proceeds raised by Mr Gaiman’s video campaign in collaboration with UNHCR will go towards helping Syrian refugees in the Middle East survive the season.
“We’re aiming to reach 90 per cent of Syrian refugees with support with the winter cash program. It’s a lump sum that will help them buy fuel, warm clothes and basically survive this winter,” Ms Abdou Khaled said.
“This is considered to be a lifesaving program…but we still don’t have enough money to reach that 90 per cent of refugees.”
Mr Gaiman said he is hopeful that his video campaign will help bring in donations for the Winter Appeal to help keep families safe and warm this season.
“It’s why I’ve been banging the drum now for refugees for seven years or more,” he said, with the author having first visited refugee camps in Jordan in 2014 to understand better what the situation was like on the ground.
“I wound up going in 2014 to Jordan and seeing the camps up close and…talking to refugees and that was life-changing. I came away, there are photos of me coming away from there with this sort of thousand-yard stare. I just realised for myself how incredibly fragile civilisation is.”
“These were people from towns, cities and villages who had completely normal lives a year ago, two years ago, four years ago, they had corner shops. They were working selling cars, selling insurance, they were dentists. Everything was normal and then the world fell apart,” he said.
While 2020 may have been a difficult year for many around the world, Mr Gaiman said he hoped those who can afford to stay warm during the coming winter months will try to “remember how lucky you are to be warm and remember that there are people out there who aren’t.”
“Just think of what it’s like in the bleak mid-winter for refugees all over the world,” He said. “Think of them shivering and then reach into your pocket and send something.”