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Television John Doyle: Children of Syria – an unmissable story

We did the right thing about the Syrian refugee crisis. Justin the Good at the airport, all warmth and welcome. A unifying, iconic scene. The hard work isn't over, of course, in case anyone is feeling smug about it. A recent official estimate is that 4.6 million Syrians are refugees, and 6.6 million are displaced within Syria; half are children.

Frontline: Children of Syria (Tuesday, PBS, 10 p.m.) is a sobering, heartbreaking and, eventually, bittersweet, uplifting documentary about one family, mainly the children. Three years ago German filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen began filming the daily lives of a family in Aleppo and he kept returning. Now this new documentary chronicles several years in their lives, from Aleppo to refugee status in Germany.

It is impossible to take your eyes off these kids. We see them as they are, children in an extraordinary situation, and we follow their fraught journey and watch as they adapt, as children do, from one circumstance to another. Their story floats on sorrow.

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We meet them first in 2013, three girls and a boy, living in the ruins of a bombed-out house with their mother, Hala, and father, Abu Ali. The father was an engineer who joined the rebel Free Syrian army and now leads a battalion trying to hold on to a neighbourhood in Aleppo. "We decided to stay with my father," one of the daughters says. "Whatever happens to him, happens to us, too." Mother Hala worries constantly about their decision to stay. Her husband could be killed at any moment. The kids are jittery, bored, emotionally scarred. Her seven-year-old daughter says she collects ribbons to help her father light bombs to explode.

The girls scavenge for clothes, appliances, anything, in abandoned homes.

An older sister tells the younger one it's wrong to take toys from other people's homes. But, children being children, the youngest just wants her toys. The son wanders the dangerous streets to see the ruins of a friend's house. He says he would like to torture and kill Bashar al-Assad.

The father explains that because he and Hala couldn't conceive for eight years, their children are precious to them. He wants to be close to them. When the story resumes in 2014, the Islamic State has taken part of the city and kidnapped Abu Ali. While the young kids act out what they've heard about Islamic State tactics of beheadings and torture, Hala decides to take them and flee to Turkey and, then, hopefully get asylum in Germany.

They flee with all their belongings in suitcases and plastic bags. The kids look out from the car at their bombed-out city, and are afraid, but longing to stay. They end up in the mud and rain of a refugee camp on the border with Turkey. Hala bribes their way out, getting to Istanbul and applying to the German Consulate for refugee status. In February, 2015, they're still in Istanbul. But compared with many refugees they are lucky – they get their status and fly to Germany. One of the kids says, staring out at the German countryside, "Do you know what Germany looks like? I think it looks like Syria a long time ago." His mother says, "To be honest, this frightens me."

They are placed in Goslar, a pretty town in central Germany. Searching on the Internet, the son says the town wants refugees because the people there are old and dying off. "They're like dinosaurs," he announces. One of the girls, ecstatic, says when she hears the birdsong in the morning she believes the birds are saying "Welcome to Germany."

They have money, a home, health care and education in Germany. The footage of the kids on their first day at school is profoundly moving. And yet not everything is ideal. We see them in January of this year when far right groups are protesting the presence of refugees. One of the kids says that at school they hear mutters of, "Get out of our country." Hala, the mother, drinks coffee every morning while staring at a photo of her missing husband.

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As the story moves toward now, the eldest daughter, Helen, is going out in the streets without her hijab, showing her hair. She says, "In Germany, a girl isn't ruled. She has freedom." Still, when the young kids are playing in their new home, they act out what they saw in Aleppo. They want to play with toy guns and, watching, you see all of the fraught, dangerous past rising to the surface.

What is incredibly powerful and what makes Children of Syria unmissable is that everything is seen, really, through the eyes of the children. The effects of war, with its horror, grief and then hope, joy and pained longing, is communicated through them; their young and guileless eyes.

You haven't understood the Syrian refugee crisis until you've seen this beautiful, textured story about home, escape, identity and anguish.

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