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Liam Neeson works with Syrian refugees as UNICEF envoy

AMMAN, Jordan -- Liam Neeson got a little break from being famous. Sitting on the floor of a community center courtyard with two dozen local teens, he listened attentively as young Syrian refugees -- who had no idea that he’s a Hollywood star -- talked about the struggles of exile.

A 15-year-old girl said she was bullied in school. A boy of the same age said he used to get into fights.

“They are all our children,” Neeson, a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. child agency, later told The Associated Press. “They want peace, they want to be recognized.”

Neeson’s visit to Jordan this week was his first to the troubled Middle East on behalf of UNICEF, one of a number of U.N. agencies and aid groups trying to ease the plight of displaced Syrians and their overburdened host communities.

Nearly 5 million Syrians, half of them children, have fled civil war at home since 2011 and settled in neighboring 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 center in a working-class neighborhood of Jordan’s capital of Amman. At the center, operated by the community development group Johud, Syrian and Jordanian teens get to know each other in after-school sessions. The program is funded by UNICEF and run by the Jordan-based group Generations For Peace.

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.”

Asked about the backlash against Syrian refugees in Europe and the U.S., Neeson said that “we in the West tend to have a bias” against Muslims, a “sweeping generalization because of what these fanatical fundamentalist groups will do in the name of God, in the name of Allah.”

Neeson 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.”

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