North writer Peter Mortimer helps refugee children

FOR two months North East writer Peter Mortimer worked with pupils in a Palestinian refugee camp to perform a play based on a fable he had penned.

Peter Mortimer

FOR two months North East writer Peter Mortimer worked with pupils in a Palestinian refugee camp to perform a play based on a fable he had penned.

Now the venture is to have a fairytale ending with 10 girls and their teachers from the school in Shatila camp in Beirut due to arrive in the North East next month to stage the play at a series of venues.

It will be the first time that the girls, aged 12 and 13, will have seen the world outside the camp.

The children were born and grew up in Shatila camp, scene of a massacre in 1982, where up to 3,000 people were killed.

The camp, with its ramshackle buildings, is home to around 17,000 people in an area no bigger than a cricket field.

More than £22,000 has been raised in the North East to bring the youngsters to the region for an eight-day stay.

A seven-mile sponsored walk along the North Tyneside coast, organised by Cullercoats-based Peter, raised £7,000, while Newcastle College Fine Art Department donated £1,500 from a charity auction, and £500 came from a Words & Music night run by writer Jeff Price at The Cumberland Arms in Byker, Newcastle.

North Tyneside Council gave £6,000, Arts Council England North-East, £4,600, the Co-operative membership £1,900, and £500 came from the Arab-British Centre.

One of the performances at the Sage in Gateshead has already been fully booked. The Shatila youngsters will also experience the greenery and wide open spaces of rural Northumberland while being put up for free by the Riverdale Hall Hotel in Bellingham, with a performance at Bellingham Town Hall.

They will also enjoy a taste of the North East with a meal of fish and chips at the seafront Queen’s Head Hotel in Cullercoats, not far from their base at the Northumbria Hotel and Language School in Whitley Bay.

It’s a far cry from Shatila, where the school’s steel gates are topped by barbed wire. Peter went to Shatila after hearing about the camp from friend Pat Riddell, a teacher from Whickham in Gateshead who had made a working visit.

“Shatila is very cramped and smelly, and is not a pleasant place to be. It was a total culture shock and I was all at sea for a while,” said Peter, who is artistic director of Cloud Nine Theatre Productions.

Working with the pupils, who had only a rudimentary grasp of English, he wrote a basic play script based on his fable Croak, The King & a Change in the Weather.

“It was the hardest thing I have ever done in all the years I have worked in theatre, but the kids were absolutely fantastic,” he said. “It was something of a minor miracle, but they performed the play in English to camp residents on my final day.” The idea was formed to bring the children to the North East, with the battle to win visas and passports one of the biggest hurdles.

“It will be an extraordinary a experience for them and an amazing number of people have rallied round to make this possible,” said Peter who will return to Shatila for a week to rehearse the play.

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