The Boy on the bicycle

Meeting the young stars of the documentary

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Home > The story behind the Boy on the Bicycle

Last year, we collaborated with production company Drummer TV to create “The Boy on the Bicycle” – a documentary of life at the Za’atari refugee camp, told completely by children. The documentary has gone from strength to strength, winning the Children’s BAFTA 2016 for Fiction, Broadcast Award for Best Children’s Programme, and the Prix Jeunesse International Children’s TV Award 2016: Non Fiction & Heart Award. Originally broadcast on CBBC and BBC1, you can catch the documentary again on iPlayer.  Unicef UK’s Jeanie Davidson explains how the award-winning “Boy on the Bicycle” documentary came to be.

Refugee stories, as told by children

With events in Syria front of mind, and so many parents and children in the UK asking questions about who these refugees are that we keep seeing on the news, we got talking with production company Drummer TV about the idea of making a film showing what life is really like for Syrian children in a refugee camp – told entirely from the children’s point of view. Happily, the BBC loved the idea too, commissioning a half-hour documentary for their celebrated My Life strand on CBBC.

The children of Za'atari, as featured in CBBC's The Boy On The Bicycle documentary. Photo: Drummer TV/2015

The children of Za'atari, as featured in The Boy On The Bicycle documentary.
Drummer TV/2015

Finding young stars in a refugee camp

Just a few weeks later, we were driving up to the gates of Za’atari refugee camp in northeast Jordan, about seven miles from the border with Syria for the first day’s filming. My two wonderful colleagues from the Unicef Jordan Country Office, Kusali and Abed Elmajeed, had worked hard to find three children – Ahmed, Ola and Ali – who were all incredibly articulate and eager to show us life in the camp.

Their stories are very typical of many children in Za’atari, highlighting the triumphs and challenges experienced by children who have adapted to a new life in the camp along with about 80,000 other refugees.

From the beginning it was clear that 16-year-old Ahmed, with his street-wise manner and excellent English (which he says he learnt watching American movies back in Syria!), would be our main Za’atari ‘tour guide’. On his trusty bicycle, he showed us a view of the camp rarely seen in news media – a more intimate view of life in a place that is both temporary and permanent at the same time. I was struck by how normal Ahmed is, considering the upheaval he and his family have been through since fleeing the conflict in Syria – he’s smart and funny, loves doing wheelies on his bike, and listens to Michael Jackson songs on his mobile phone: one of the funniest scenes in the documentary is Ahmed filming himself and his brother doing the moonwalk in the camp one evening!

School fuels the children’s ambitions

Key to Ahmed’s well-being is the Unicef-supported school he attends every day – it’s one of nine schools Unicef runs in the camp. As the film reveals, education is a key factor in ensuring that boys like Ahmed will have a future. Ahmed’s dream is to become a doctor so that he can help his people when at last they go back to rebuild Syria – his school studies are a crucial factor in helping turn that ambition into a reality.

Ola, another of the children we filmed with, was also wonderfully chatty and keen to show us her life in Za’atari. Her favourite thing to do in the camp is play football with her girl friends. We caught up with the 12-year-old at a football pitch in camp provided by Unicef and Mercy Corps, who are one of Unicef’s partners in Za’atari. As we ran around the pitch capturing footage of the girls laughing and shouting to each other, I realised that this was more than just a football game but a key way for these girls to bond with each other and let off steam. Ola and her family arrived at the camp about three years ago, after a gruelling walk across the desert with what they could carry on their backs – but you wouldn’t know that, watching her joyfully kicking goals into the net and squealing excitedly with her friends.

Behind the scenes: TV director Stef Buonajuti gets ready to film Ahmed on his bicycle Photo: Unicef UK/2015/Davison

Behind the scenes: TV director Stef Buonajuti gets ready to film Ahmed on his bicycle
Unicef UK/2015/Davison

Ola, pictured here celebrating a goal with her fellow team-mates at a football match in the camp. Photo: Drummer TV/2015

Ola, pictured here celebrating a goal with her team-mates at a football match in the camp.
Drummer TV/2015

Resilience and joy

Finally, there’s 12-year-old Ali. With his cheeky charm and gentle manner, I warmed to him straight away. Like Ahmed, he goes to a Unicef school in the camp – but he’s also taken it upon himself to be a teacher to other boys in Za’atari. In one of the most heart-warming scenes in the documentary, we see Ali teaching English to about 15 other boys who are all crammed into the tiny home where he and his family live. During our filming, the sound of the boys earnestly reciting their A,B,Cs, listening and repeating after Ali, resounded all the way down the street in the camp – a sound that has stayed with me long after leaving.

The resulting film has captured the essence of what life is like for children in Za’atari refugee camp. Faced with not knowing how long they will have to live here or when they might go back to Syria, thousands of children like Ahmed, Ola and Ali are making the best of things with a resilience and joy that is nothing short of astounding. I was not only humbled to spend time with these wonderful youngsters and their families, but the experience also renewed my feeling that the work Unicef and other agencies are doing in Za’atari is absolutely vital in giving these kids the semblance of a decent life and the means to help themselves and their communities when at last they are able to return to Syria.

You can watch The Boy on the Bicycle on iPlayer or  download it from the BBC Store. Get a taster of what’s in store from the trailer below:

Ali outside his home in Za'atari camp.
Drummer TV/2015

Help us reach more Syrian children

The stories of Ahmed, Ola and Ali are not uncommon. This month the war will have been tearing lives apart for six years and millions of Syria’s children have lost loved ones, homes and schools. We are on the ground in Syria and the surrounding countries providing life-saving food, water, education, and services to help children cope with the trauma of war. We will not rest until we reach every child in danger, but we need your help. Make a donation today to help us keep more children safe.

Help us keep more Syrian children safe

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