Omar and the dragons

Omar, the dragon

Simon had just finished my induction briefing on life in Sunrise House — a former underground strip club, now the basic home of the Salam LADC volunteer core in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, and my home for the next month — when Katrina, a formidable shaven headed Ukrainian woman, entered the dorm fretting that she was one short for tonight’s “Cinema Club”.

With his multi-dimensional beard, short at the sides and grown long off the chin, Simon could easily be underestimated. And yet after a briefing that encompassed the formation of Israel, the Lebanese civil war and the more recent crisis in Syria, as well as instruction of danger areas to avoid and protocol to follow in the event of a security incident, it didn’t take long to develop a respect for him. The grandson of “Austro-Czech” immigrants (he doesn’t like to call himself a Jew in the Middle East to avoid distraction caused by the ongoing unrest in Israel-Palestine) Simon has been in Lebanon for months working long hours with no pay. All because he has an affinity to a people he believes are in a similar predicament to his grandparents in the 1940s.

With the briefing over he asked if I’d like to be Katrina’s final team member and help take Cinema Club to the nearby Taanayel Settlement. I agreed to join.

At 17.50 team Cinema Club — consisting of a diminutive but punchy Italian lady, an experienced Dutch volunteer, a Cornish gap year student and myself — received our brief from team leader Katrina. We were to take a fold-up screen (that the new giant team member would be responsible for hanging) a speaker, a laptop and the necessary cables. We would meet translator Mohammed at the entrance to the camp and then our van would drive in, turn around to face the exit route in case of an incident, before Katrina, and strictly only Katrina(!), would get out. Once she returned to the van and gave the all clear we could all unload and take the equipment into the tent.

With everything set up and an audience of twenty five children between the ages of 5 and 15 ready and waiting, the lights were dimmed — by ripping out a plug from the plywood wall — and the animated cartoon “How to tame a dragon” started rolling. I settled down sitting crossed legged (no mean feat!) on the floor at the back of the tent.

Halfway through the film a little boy, no older than 6, came and sat close to me. I later discovered he was Omar from Homs — once a rebel stronghold it was one of the earlier cities to be decimated in the civil war. Slowly he crept closer to me, a total stranger, until his head was resting against my arm. He fell asleep.

After some time he suddenly grabbed my arm and held it in a vice-like grip and didn’t let go. I looked down, he was still fast asleep, tears streaming down his cheeks.

At the end of the film the lights were turned back on and Omar immediately woke from his sleep. Mohammed, the translator, shouted out “So, who loves dragons?!?” and I watched as Omar, with all his fellow friends, jumped up and down, grinning from ear to ear as he shouted “DRAGONS! DRAGONS! DRAGONS!”. The nightmare had passed and again he was a child, like any other who delights in the world of cartoon dragons.

You can DONATE to Salam LADC via this link ( and the money you donate will go directly to the families, education initiatives, kids entertainment (like Cinema Club) and medical care that Salam runs here in Bekaa Valley where there are at least 500,000 Syrian refugees.