Zaytoun, the little refugee
Where would you go if your home were destroyed? What would you eat if there was no more food? What risks would you take to save your life? These are questions thousands of refugees ask themselves every day. They are true life-or death decisions. The video game “Zaytoun, the little refugee” was designed to help us understand the reality faced by Palestinian refugees. Read More
“People rise. Regimes oppress. People wake and demand. Regimes kill.
Caught in the middle of this are thousands. Zaytoun is one; rising in Yarmouk Camp, Damascus, 2013.
Now, if you were him, what would you do?”
2015 is the year of the refugee: The UN Refugee Agency estimates that more than 60 million people have fled their homelands, more than ever before. Displacement is something no one can understand if they have not gone through it themselves. One of the main factors driving up the number of refugees is the war in Syria: Just under 4 million people have fled the country in the last few years. The situation is particularly precarious for Palestinians living in refugee camps inside of Syria, but their situation tends to be forgotten by the international media.
One of them is Moha Tayyed, the creator and artist behind the animated Zaytoun. He tells me he was born in the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, Yarmouk Camp near Damascus, in 1984. Using the Zaytoun character, Moha draws comics of people like himself in order to raise awareness. Based on his comics, he and his friends are now also developing an online video game. In it the player takes on the role of a Palestinian refugee fleeing from Syria.
“I have no nationality. This lack of identity has always been the hardest thing for me.”
No nationality, no visa
Moha rummages around slightly nervously in his trouser pocket to find his passport and show it to me. When he pulls it out, I can see the bright golden crown of the Spanish royal house on the front. It was issued in Spain and looks like a perfectly normal passport. But inside, the entry under birthplace is a bit unusual: “país desconocido” – “unknown country”. It is actually not a passport at all, but a travel document.
“I have no nationality. I have often gone to embassies to get a visa, and they always say: ‘This is not a passport. You need a passport to get a visa.’ Not being recognised by the international community, this lack of identity, has always been the hardest thing for me. It is the most important question when you ask yourself ‘who am I?’”
Moha is a young man on the run. By the time he was born, his family had already migrated twice: In 1948 his grandparents fled their Palestinian homeland in neighbouring Lebanon to escape Jewish settlers. Then in 1982, two years before he was born, Moha’s parents fled the civil war in Lebanon into Syria. His family has been displaced for over 65 years, a family history of war, persecution and refugee camps. The Tayyed family is not alone either – millions of Palestinians live in UN refugee camps today. Every child born in the camps has the same problem as Moha: They are all stateless.
Moha’s birth was initially only registered by the UN Refugee Agency. Syrian law prohibits parents from passing on their nationality, so he could not assume Palestinian citizenship. The Syrian authorities do not recognize children of refugees as Syrians either though, although they were born on Syrian soil.
Not having a passport became a serious problem when Moha was forced to flee Syria in 2009. But without a passport, he couldn't apply for a visa or asylum.
A graffiti character to represent Palestinian refugees
The graffiti character Zaytoun was born one year later in Berlin, Germany. Moha had finally reached Western Europe after months of trying to escape Syria, of threats and hardships during the journey, and of struggling every day to survive. But when he finally made it to the Palestinian Embassy in Berlin, they told him once again: no passport, no visa.
“They said they don’t represent me because I’m not a Palestinian from inside Palestine. I was like: So who represents me then? And they said: We don’t know, and we don’t care.’ So I had the idea of coming back the same night and spraying graffiti on the embassy. I wanted to create a character that represents me as a Palestinian refugee from Syria.”
The Zaytoun character depicts a Palestinian boy with furious eyes and a scarf tied over his mouth and nose, not just to keep the dust out, but also to keep from being recognised. Barefoot and armed with just a slingshot, he fights his way through a bombed-out city and defends himself against heavily armed soldiers.
I ask Moha if he had ever sprayed before. “No, that was the first time.”
Moha was finally granted political asylum in Spain. He took Zaytoun with him, bringing him to life on the walls of buildings and in comics on his website and YouTube channel. He processed his own story in his animations. “Many people reacted to my comics and asked me to explain more about then – so I had to do more and more animations.”
The idea for the video game came about as the situation grew increasingly complicated in Syria. “I wanted to explain what was going on. The global media report a lot on the fights between the regime and the terrorists, but they ignore the civilian population. People know from the media how many refugees are fleeing. But do they know that they didn’t have a passport when they left? That they didn’t have any food on the journey?”
Zaytoun - the video game
The videogame “Zaytoun, the little refugee” has become the communal project of a group of friends from Europe and the Middle East who call themselves the Zaytoun gang. A documentation group based in Yarmouk Camp sends original videos and footage from Syria; Moha and his Spanish friends work on the concept, art and animation; and a hacker group in Heidelberg, Germany does the programming. The game combines animation with real video sequences to keep it as closely rooted in reality as possible.
Although graffiti Zaytoun was Moha’s alter ego, the animated character is intended to represent all the Palestinians in Syria: Zaytoun, the Palestinian refugee boy from Yarmouk Camp. In the videogame, he is still in the camp when it is besieged by Syrian Security Forces in 2013, who don’t allow any food, medicine or electricity in. He is stuck.
That’s how the game starts. “The first scene shows a real video of a kid asking for food. The cameraman asks: ‘When was the last time you ate?’ The child answers: ‘Two weeks ago, please help.’ This is your first mission: Help the kid. Along the way you’ll have to cope with new missions, for example you will have to survive a bombing, a sniper attack, some landmines – but the final mission is still to find something to eat.”
I ask if he doesn’t think it odd to deal with such a serious issue in the form of a video game. “Not really. Games can be a form of education, an interactive way of telling news. Exposing people to a situation makes it easier for them to understand it and may create more solidarity with those who’ve gone through it in real life.”
With the help of a series of documents and maps with information on the state of the roads, cities and hospitals, the player must decide where to go and what to say to the people he meets. “Finding food and water is impossible in the game,” Moha continues. “So you’ll have to find another solution: You have to eat grass or domestic animals like dogs and cats. This is what we had to do when there was no food in the camp.”
Zayton, the little refugee: Video game
“The game is going to expose you to the decisions refugees have to make when they flee,” he adds. This includes finding a way to get past the soldiers at the checkpoint, a way out of the camp where only starvation and death await. “At the end of the game, you will have to decide where to go: to Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, which are close; or risk crossing the Mediterranean, even though you know that many people are dying on the way.”
“The game is going to expose you to the decisions refugees have to make when they flee.”
Zaytoun’s story does not reflect the fates of all refugees of course, only of Palestinians. There are as many stories as there are refugees and every child faces his or her own problems and needs. But the stories are also similar in some ways. So the video game plans to include other stories in addition to those of Palestinians. “We saw that the story is not only about Palestinian refugees; it’s also about Syrian refugees. So we’re planning to come up with more refugee characters.” In future players will be able to choose their character, such as Leyla, a Syrian refugee, or Leylon from the Sahara.
“Zaytoun, the little refugee” is Moha’s attempt to portray the life of a refugee and make it comprehensible to those who have never had to flee. It seeks to give a voice to everyone who has lost so much of their identity to displacement. “If people get a better understanding of the situation, then I have reached my objective,” says Moha. For his efforts and moving graphics, he was honoured with the Best of Blog Award from Deutsche Welle in July. At the awards ceremony he took the stage dressed like Zaytoun: with a scarf tied over his face.
The first chapter of the video game with two hours of playing time will go up on the website on December 22. The trailer is already up:
“This video game should not exist,” it starts.
Yet it does exist: The story of Zaytoun, the little refugee, is the story of thousands of Palestinian refugee children around the world.
Zaytoun, the little refugee: Trailer