Neil Gaiman reveals trip to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan 'broke him in pieces'

Rob Waugh

Neil Gaiman, author of sci fi and fantasy hits such as the novel which inspired the film Stardust, talks about how his recent journey to refugee camps in Jordan "broke him in pieces" as Yahoo marks World Refugee Day. He also reveals the family connection which gave him a personal insight into how writers can offer an “escape” from the suffering, as well as the story of the "camp doctor" whose heroic efforts inspired his exclusive reportage for Yahoo News, Ayman (below).

“I didn’t even know that the story of these camps was personal, until I started talking to my cousin Helen, who’s 96 this year. It was refugee camps that kept that whole side of my family alive,” says Stardust author Neil Gaiman, 53, shortly after his return from a visit to two refugee camps in Jordan, just across the border from Syria.

[UN report reveals refugees top 50million for the first time since WWII]

The Syrian conflict has displaced millions – over 600,000 of whom have found themselves in Jordan with 100,000 in these huge camps, gatherings of containers and tents so vast they already consume $500,000 (£293,000) of electricity per month.

“Talking to Helen, hearing her story, was one of those strange, huge, game-changing moments where you reconsider what you do and why you do it,” Gaiman says after his three-day visit. He admits to initial surprise that UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, would value the words of an author known mainly for fantasy and science fiction hits such as Sandman and the New York Times bestseller Anansi Boys - but says that the charity work has “broken him in pieces” and that he intends to return to the camps.

Slideshow: Neil Gaiman accompanies Syrian refugee doctor on his rounds in Jordan's Zaatari camp.

“I can’t think about not returning. I want to go back,” he says. “I had a huge family in Eastern Europe, and they all died [in World War II], except for these three sisters, who went through hell. They wound up getting to a displaced persons camp - a refugee camp - where one of them fell in love with the American who ran the camp. They all wound up, rather to their surprise, going to America.

“In order to understand why the story meant so much to me when I heard it, you have to know that Helen is a professor. She doesn’t read fiction for pleasure. She’s very practical, very sensible. But in the Warsaw Ghetto, she used to teach little girls - under the guise, I believe, of sewing classes - storytelling.”

[Syrian refugee Mohamed dreams of reuniting with his six children]

“At that point, in that place, all books were illegal, and she got hold of a black market copy of Gone With The Wind in Polish translation. Every night, she would stay up late, reading it. And every morning, the girls would ask her what had happened in the part she had read that night. She couldn’t bring the book itself in, because that would have been too dangerous - it had to be kept out of sight. But every day, she risked her life to tell them stories.”

 “I thought, ‘This changes everything'. People who write fiction, like me, get a lot of stick for escapism. But this isn’t escapism - it’s escape. She got out - and took those girls with her. For that hour, they couldn’t keep them in the ghetto.”

UNHCR High Profile Supporter, Neil Gaiman at home with Syrian refugee Abu Hassan and his family in their pre-fab â'caravan'. (Jordi Matas / UNHCR)

Gaiman says that despite a career which has seen him hop from genre to genre, and medium to medium, writing journalism and blogging, as well as hugely successful comics and novels, he was unprepared for the reality of the refugee camps.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says. “I was way out of my depth. And that’s always a good place to be for a writer.”

Refugees now make up a tenth of the population of Jordan. The 600,000 refugees who have flooded across the border from Syria are the equivalent, the author says, of six million people arriving in Britain. 100,000 of whom live in camps such as the ones visited by Gaiman – Zaatari, which has now closed its doors, and Azraq.

[VIDEO: Writer Khaled Hosseini meets aspiring author Payman, 16, from Syria]

Each of the huge cities of prefabs and tents on Jordan’s borders is filled, Gaiman says with “people who love their country and who want to live there, each of whom no more wants to leave Syria than an Englishman wants to leave England, or a Scotsman wants to leave Scotland. But they have left. There is nobody there who has not gone through hell. Just getting out of Syria is hell.”

Gaiman describes meeting a five-year-old who “got buried in a bomb blast, and who, digging himself out, held on to a live electric cable, and now has a little withered hand”.

Gaiman met victims who had seen their whole families disappear in the Syrian conflict, who had been beaten senseless by money-hungry Syrian checkpoint officials on the border, and gone deep into debt just to reach camps such as Azraq. He met many who had been maimed by mortar fire and landmines before arriving in the camps.

The charcoal boys: Syrian child refugees forced into work to support their families

"You can shout the politics all you like,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, the ability to feed your children is as close to a real issue as anything you can find on this planet. I have a megaphone. I am like one of those nice men you used to see in Hyde Park [in London]. I get up on my box, and I am lucky enough that people gather round and listen. And given that I have that luck, I should focus on talking about big, important things that matter. And at the moment, in terms of human crises that are going on, this is the biggest on Earth.”

Gaiman’s ‘megaphone’ comes from fame that has slowly built from his beginnings as a comic writer - his hit Sandman, a strange, sprawling fantasy of mystic figures such as Dream and Death was among the first to be popular with both men and women. (Gaiman describes it as “sexually transmitted”.)

His subsequent work has strayed far beyond comics to novels such as Anansi Boys, which debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and Stardust, which later became a worldwide box-office hit starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro.

['I left everything I knew': WWII child refugee recalls the moment she escaped the Soviet Union]

“It’s definitely the charity work that has affected me most deeply in my whole life,” says Gaiman, who admits that his previous work was closer to his “day job”, focusing on issues such as free speech, which he describes as ‘huge’.

He says, “The camps were the first time when I found myself in a world that felt so much bigger than me. Normally, I will look at the rights and the wrongs, and you are very clear about which side you are on. And on this, it took me a while. But in the end I thought, “You know, I’m on the side of the people who want to raise their kids in peace, without getting shot at or blown up. I’m on the side of the people who want to help.”

Gaiman said that he had two responses to the camps - horror at the atrocities, but a sneaking sense of hope, inspired by the ingenuity of camp inhabitants.

“In Zaatari camp, there’s a street of shops and trading places which they call the Champs Elysees,” he says. “There’s a guy on that street selling pizza. And he got hold of a bicycle, so he’ll do pizza deliveries. There’s something about the idea of getting pizza deliveries in a place like that - and it’s not some joke, it’s just a guy improvising  - shows off the hope and the sanity of people, even in a place like that. That is what is going to make the world better.”  

'Champs Elysees', the main shopping street in Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees. (Jordi Matas / UNHCR)

That sense of hope, he says, is what inspired his article, written exclusively for Yahoo News - which describes the work of a doctor improvising makeshift operations in his spare time in Zaatari camp. Gaiman was moved by spending time with Ayman, who travels the camp treating the many severely wounded who are not able to make it to the camp’s hospitals and health centres.

“I love the fact that I am part of a human race which can contain Ayman, the camp doctor, who will be out there at any time when people need help,” the author says. “Working a full day and then going out and being essentially a kind of volunteer nurse. Doing injections. Doing little operations, removing shrapnel. And you’re like, ‘This is absolutely the most important thing that someone could be doing in this situation. And he is out there doing it.’

[A day in the life of the Zaatari refugee camp]

“I broke in little pieces watching Ayman do just two of the things he does every day. And he does seven of them. And it wasn’t just me - it broke my cameraman too, and he is a big tough, premium cameraman, who’d been in much worse places.”

“All it takes is watching an eleven-year-old girl who has lost half her jaw, and her five sisters have come round to watch, and offer cheers. Their father got killed in the same bomb attack that took her jaw. And yet Ayman is there, and he doesn’t have to do this. And the most he can hope for is that someone will give him painkillers, or that someone will give him gauze - will get him stuff that allows him to work on the next person.”

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, which houses more than 100,000 refugees. (Jordi Matas / UNHCR)

Gaiman’s goal, he says, is simply to tell people, “what the hell’s going on out there,” and says that he is writing for the “silent majority", who will read and then donate, without shouting about the issues online.

“I did start out a long, long time ago as a journalist. I wasn’t ever a very good one. I was much more interested in making things up,” he says.

“But what I aim for in all my writing, is that it’s very clear - it communicates. That’s why people respond. These camps are huge - the electricity bill is half a million dollars a month. What I really want is for people to know," he says.

"This is going to inform stuff that I do in the future. I can’t imagine it not. Whether it be comics, or a standalone novel, it’s going to inform my work. And I am hoping to go back to Zaatari and Azraq as soon as I can. I have friends there now. I have met people who I just want to know where their stories go next.”

UNHCR High Profile Supporter, Neil Gaiman with children at playgroup at the Azraq refugee camp, Jordan. (Jordi Matas / UNHCR)


YAHOO EXCLUSIVE: Neil Gaiman 'I don’t cry until I leave the tent': Author Neil Gaiman visits Syrian refugee camp


Ayman's wife bakes the best fig rolls I've ever tasted. They are small, and she gives them to us in abundance as we arrive. I never get over my surprise, joy and puzzlement over the generosity of the people in Zaatari camp: if they have nothing, they still give us sweet tea, and there's olives and hummus and pitta bread. In Zaatari refugee camp, in Jordan, 400,000 pieces of pitta bread are given out to Syrian refugees every morning. But that's only four pieces for each person in the camp, and I always feel torn between not wishing to refuse their generosity, and knowing that I'm consuming something they need.

They call Ayman ‘doctor’, and he prides himself on his bedside manner. In Syria, he was a medical lab technician, and then, when the fighting started, he became a doctor in a field hospital. Now he, with his smiling wife and his four little children, is a refugee. He works a full day as a camp community mobiliser, comes home to his container called a ‘caravan’ (a box-like white space with mattresses on the floor, a one-room living space that will become a sleeping place at night), gets his medical supplies bag, and sets off on his rounds.

Ayman is a Syrian refugee volunteer nurse who provides medical assistance to the camp community. (Jordi Matas / UNHCR)

He explains his day to me. “I travel from tent to tent, caravan to caravan, performing minor surgeries to remove shrapnel that has been embedded in people – adults and children – for quite some time and needs to be extracted.  Also dressing wounds and things like that.  A lot of these people are unable to get to hospitals or health centres so I go to them.  I don’t get paid for this work, I just want to support the people.  I will help any person inside Zaatari – it doesn’t matter about money or religion or anything else.  Sometimes people I treat will give me medicines and bandages instead of money which is good as I can use it on other cases.”

The supplies in his medical bag are all donations from people who he has helped, or who got out of Syria with them, or who had something they did not need: he has painkillers and bandages and saline, ointments, hypodermics and gauze.

He takes me on his rounds: tonight he's changing dressings. I meet a 22 year old youth who stepped on a landmine in Syria. He's missing a foot, and I find it hard to figure out what I'm looking at as the dressing comes off, and I realise the thing I thought was a heel is a bone, sticking out. Ayman has been coming to him every two days for over six months, changing the dressing. In the early days, it was all pus. Now it's healing.

Then we go to see Rania: she's only eleven. The mortar attack back in Syria that killed her father destroyed a third of her jawbone and the bone in her upper right arm. Metal rods keep her smashed bones in place. She's living in a tent with her five sisters and her mother, a tiny space for seven people to live. Three teddy bears sit on the pile of mattresses that will come out that night.


I watch as Ayman removes the old dressing, cleans the flesh wounds. Rania manages to smile and tells us she loved her school in Syria, wishes she could go to school again. She wants to go home. My translator starts to cry, and has to pull herself together, for Rania. I don't cry until Ayman and I have left the tent.

Ayman tells us Rania needs further surgery, although he does not know if she will get it, and in the meantime he will keep her wounds clean and free of infection.

Ayman sees up to seven people like this every evening, to change their dressings or perform small surgeries. The people look forward to his visits. He's running out of medical supplies in his bag. Yesterday a woman came to his container with tonsillitis, in pain. He had no paracetamol, so gave her some of his daughter's paracetamol. More than anything, he hates to see people in pain.

Ayman's only immediate regret – other than needing more medical supplies – is that although his wife cooks for him, he does not have time for dinner, and when he gets home each night he is too tired to eat. He has lost 18kg in the last year. “I can't stop to eat when I know people need my help,” he tells me, and in Zaatari camp people always need Ayman's help.

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Best-selling author Neil Gaiman poses with Ayman during his rounds. (Jordi Matas / UNHCR)