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“Friendship wins” Summer Camp for Azerbaijan Youth Promote Tolerance, Participation and Healthy Lifestyle

By Sarah Marcus GUBA, Azerbaijan 2010 - In a state of the art gymnasium in the Olympic Complex in Guba, Azerbaijan, cries of excitement and interest ring out. In each corner of the gym is a group of children doing group work led by different specialists and supervised by caregivers who seem as involved in the process as the children themselves. One group is learning about healthy lifestyles. Brainstorming among themselves, they come up with habits which threaten a healthy lifestyle and write them on a large sheet of paper. The educator leading the group says little, gently guiding the children in creating their own model of a healthy lifestyle. In another corner a group is working with a psychologist, holding up pictures they’ve drawn of themselves which represent some of their dreams. One boy holds up a drawing of himself as a member of the national football team, another draws himself as a cat, jumping to reach for his dreams. Another group is learning about child rights and a fourth about leadership and teambuilding. Their challenge is to make something from paper and sellotape which will prevent an egg from breaking when it is thrown into it. To do this, they must cooperate and work as a team. About 100 children aged 14-17 are taking part in this week-long summer camp in Guba aimed at increasing youth participation and awareness of issues like those covered by the workshops described above as well as sports, conflict prevention, human trafficking and film making. Organised by the National Assembly of Youth Organisations of Azerbaijan (NAYORA) and supported by the Government of Azerbaijan and UNICEF, it’s the second such camp of summer 2010, the first one having taken place in Lenkeran, in the south of the country. At the opening of the camp UNICEF Azerbaijan Representative Mark Heyward outlined what he said were ‘the reasons we are here’. ‘These camps are designed to address some worrying facts in Azerbaijan,’ he said. ‘By age 19, 10 per cent of men are smoking, by age 24, it’s 35 per cent. Only five per cent of young people aged 15-24 have comprehensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS and there is low tolerance towards people living with HIV among young people. 70 per cent of 10-14-year-olds have experienced psychological punishment in
the last month,’ he continued. ‘But all these numbers can change for the better if you children take the knowledge and skills you learn here back to friends, classmates and neighbours. Children and young people are not the problem, they are the resources which can solve the problems which affect them,’ he concluded. One of the main aims of the camps is that participators will return to their schools and communities and share what they learnt. According to NAYORA chairperson Fuad Muradov educators use “a European model of peer education to teach the children how to do this.” The children seem to be catching on quickly to the idea of peer education. ‘When I go home to Ganja I will make a game in my school to teach the other children what I’ve learnt here,’ said David, 15, who explained that being at the camp had helped him overcome his shyness and build his communication skills. Integration is a very important aspect of the summer camp. Gender integration is a challenge because, according to Muradov, families outside Azerbaijan’s capital Baku are often unwilling to let their girls go away without a family member. But at this camp 30 per cent of the children are girls, a figure which organizers are happy about. 13-year-old Mehriban lives in a village near Baku where attitudes to girls are still old-fashioned – she says that early marriage is common there. Mehriban is a diabetic and adds that there are families in her village who hide the fact that their daughters are diabetic too. ‘They are afraid it will stop people marrying them,’ she said. The camp also focuses on integrating children like Mehriban, who have chronic physical conditions, as well as children with mental and physical disabilities and refugees and IDPs from Nagorno Karabakh and occupied territories. Watching the children at the camp is a good lesson in how well young people can respond to efforts to integrate them. They all appear to treat each other equally, seemingly barely noticing if a child they are talking to or playing with has a disability or is from a more disadvantaged background than they are.    


13-year-old Vagif is a refugee from Shusha. His comments illustrate how he and his peers are being taught tolerance and integration.

‘It’s good for children with disabilities to gain energy from such an interactive camp as this,’ he said.

‘And it’s also good that we, the children without disabilities, get to play with them as a team,’ he continued.

He also discusses what he has learnt in the morning’s session about child rights.

‘I knew a little bit about this before, but now I have advanced my knowledge. I learnt how to defend my rights if someone interferes with them,’ he said.

‘I would go to my parents and tell them someone hurt me or pushed me. I would go to the court to defend my rights. We were told we can even go to court against your parents if it’s necessary,’ he expanded.

Wanting to learn is a common theme among the children, who certainly don’t seem to view the camp as a holiday, but as a valuable chance to expand their knowledge – and their group of friends.

Muradov of NAYORA says that the selection process is quite stringent and that most of the children attending the camps are from disadvantaged or poor backgrounds and would rarely have the chance to travel or attend such a retreat.

12-year-old Rufat said that he believes that education standards in schools in Azerbaijan are low and so he is delighted with the learning opportunities the camp brings.

‘I hope to learn how to take care of Azerbaijani children. I hope the get knowledge about how adults should treat children too,’ he commented.

‘I learnt a lot, it was all new and that’s why I was so attentive. I have a lot to learn and little by little I am sure I will,’ said Mehriban, who had just attended a session on human trafficking.

Amid all the learning, the children are having a lot of fun, too. All the education sessions are child-centered and many of them designed to work through play and games. In the evenings there is more play.

One group of children spends the whole camp planning, shooting and editing their own one minute films mostly on the themes of health, child rights and youth participation. At the introductory session for this programme, journalist and trainer Chris Schuepp explains that they have to take full responsibility for their films – from choosing what story they want to tell to finding the props and the actors.

This group worked very hard over four-and-a-half days and in the end came up with some excellent films.

One child made a film about his friend who has a minor physical disability. In the film other children don’t let him join in their game of football, until he suddenly takes the initiative and scores a brilliant goal, leading the others to see him in a new light.

Another child makes a film about a boy who throws rubbish away carelessly, utilizing the equipment of the Guba Olympic Complex janitors; a third child makes a film set at a running competition where one competitor helps another who falls during a race – the film was called “Friendship wins”.

By the end of the week they spent in Guba, the children were happy and exhilarated, full of knowledge to bring home and spread.

And children will be children, so for many of them the best thing about the camp was the friends they made, something which is in itself testimony to the atmosphere of warmth, fun and integration which fostered a great learning experience for all.

 

 

 
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