Actor Liam Neeson got a break from being famous when he listened to young Syrian refugees speak about the struggles of life in exile.
In his role as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, he sat on the ground in the courtyard of a community centre in Amman, Jordan, and heard the stories of two dozen teenagers, who had no idea he is a Hollywood star.
A 15-year-old girl described how she was bullied at school, and a boy of the same age said he used to get into fights.
“They are all our children,” Neeson later told the Associated Press. “They want peace, they want to be recognised.”
Neeson’s visit to Jordan this week was his first to the troubled Middle East on behalf of Unicef, one of a number of UN agencies and aid groups trying to ease the plight of displaced Syrians and their overburdened host communities.
Nearly five million Syrians, half of them children, have fled civil war at home since 2011 and settled in neighbouring countries, mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Jordan hosts close to 660,000 displaced Syrians. Most live in Jordan’s poorest communities where locals often complain that the influx is pushing up rents and driving down wages.
On Tuesday, Neeson and his son Micheal, 21, visited a community centre in a working-class area of Jordan’s capital. At the centre, operated by the community development group Johud, Syrian and Jordanian teenagers get to know each other in after-school sessions. The programme is funded by Unicef and run by the Jordan-based group Generations For Peace.
After watching the youngsters compete in a relay race, the 64-year-old actor sat in a circle with them on the tiled floor of the courtyard to hear their stories.
Ahmed, a 15-year-old Syrian, said he used to get into fights with a Jordanian boy from the neighbourhood. Now they are like brothers, he said.
Reema Mohammed, 15, a refugee from the Syrian capital of Damascus, said a Jordanian girl in her school used to bully her and that the centre’s programme had helped her handle the situation.
Neeson later said in an interview that he was particularly inspired by the Syrian girls, including those he met during a tour of Zaatari, Jordan’s largest camp for Syrian refugees, on Monday.
“I thought they would be more oppressed because of their culture, and of course because of the ordeals they have been going through, coming from Syria, the horrors there,” he said. “These girls I met, yesterday and ... again here today, they are so positive, so eager and keen to learn.”
“I asked them ... what their goals were in life, in an ideal world what would they want to be,” he said, adding that responses included mathematician, engineer, police inspector and teacher. “To see these girls being empowered by education and the focus in their eyes was incredibly humbling and very moving.”
Nevertheless, Unicef says about 700,000 school-age Syrian refugees across the region are missing out on education, either because there is no space for them in overcrowded local schools or because they have to work and support their families. In Jordan and Lebanon, many schools are running double shifts to try to accommodate the refugee children.
Asked about the backlash against Syrian refugees in Europe and the US, Neeson said “we in the West tend to have a bias” against Muslims, a “sweeping generalisation because of what these fanatical fundamentalist groups will do in the name of God, in the name of Allah”.
The actor said he grew up with violent conflict – between Protestants and Catholics – in his native Northern Ireland.
“I kind of grew up cautious, very, very cautious,” he said. “I have kind of seen it in some of the kids here, in their eyes – but once you engage them and talk to them that rapidly disappears.”
Neeson has appeared in more than 70 films, including the 1993 Best Picture winner Schindler’s List, the action trilogy Taken, George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode 1 – Phantom Menace and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
His forthcoming releases include another Scorsese film, The Silence, about two Jesuit priests who face persecution in 17th century Japan, and Felt, about the FBI agent who under the name “Deep Throat” helped uncover the Watergate scandal.
Next summer, Neeson will start shooting The Trainer, set in Ireland and centred on the relationship between a horse trainer and a troubled refugee from Eastern Europe.
In Jordan, he took his apparent lack of celebrity status among the local teenagers in his stride.
“I was appalled,” he said, jokingly, when asked how he felt when he realised they really did not know who he was.
“It is kind of refreshing ... (the kids) saying, OK, thanks for coming to our school, but who are you?” he said, laughing.