At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

A place of sanctuary for children of Homs, Syrian Arab Republic

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2013/Morooka
Girls pose at a children's centre in Homs, Syrian Arab Republic. The centre's art, dance, sports and music activities offer children a respite from the horrors of the conflict.

By Juliette Touma

The once vibrant streets of Homs are deserted and cluttered with garbage, its residents fleeing from shelter to shelter, passing through security checkpoints as a matter of course. Within the walls of a children’s centre, children and mothers can forget the horrors outside, if only briefly.

HOMS, Syrian Arab Republic, 3 April 2013 – I did not quite know what to expect when I accompanied a UNICEF team driving through the streets of Homs.

The city is grey and deserted, and there is garbage everywhere. Grass grows on the sidewalks, a rare sign of life in a city that has been the scene of so much death and destruction since the Syrian crisis began more than two years ago.

A windowless flat

Homs is in a state of flux, with people leaving and arriving with the ebb and flow of violence. 

I visited Riham*, a mother of four, in her windowless flat. Riham told me she had been forced to move five times since the violence began in Baba A’mr neighbourhood, in the southwestern part of the city.

After the third move, she returned to her neighbourhood, only to be forced to leave again when violence erupted anew. For now, Riham, her sister-in-law and their eight children have taken refuge in an unfinished apartment building that lacks electricity.

Riham told me her husband had been missing for the past five months. It has been difficult to support the family. She relies on aid from charities and the United Nations. UNICEF, through a local partner, has provided a vital service – installation of a toilet in her temporary shelter.

Desolation, security checkpoints

We left Riham to drive to a centre at which children receive remedial and psychosocial support.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2013/Morooka
The centre offers remedial and psychosocial support to hundreds of children in Homs. The grey, garbage-littered streets of the once vibrant city are dotted with checkpoints, and violence forces families to relocate again and again.

We were stopped several times at checkpoints. The city is full of them, making it difficult for people to move from one part of the city to another. The mere journey to work, school, hospital, market and holy sites has become a daily nightmare.

Many shops have been destroyed or are closed. As we drove down one street, a colleague told me it had once been known as the Champs-Élysées of Homs, with cafes, restaurants and bars bustling with people. Not anymore.

Mother’s Day

At the children’s centre, a friendly and welcoming Tamer, who runs the centre, ushered us through to a hall filled with hundreds of displaced children and their mothers attending a Mother’s Day event. 

The cheerful atmosphere in the room seemed miles from that on the streets outside, protected as it was against the continuous sound of shelling and bombing that had prevented us from sleeping the night before. 

Boys and girls, 5 and 6 years old, danced and sang songs for their mothers in Arabic, English and French.

Everyone was smiling, applauding and cheering. It was so peaceful, real and normal. Tamer later showed us to a side room, where he introduced his two other colleagues, Sana and Waleed.

“We receive children here from all over Homs and its suburbs,” Waleed explained. “We don’t differentiate between Christians and Muslims. This centre is open for everyone. We want to help these children overcome the horrors outside.”

A place where they can forget

Waleed was right. Back in the hall, veiled women were sitting harmoniously next to others wearing Western-style skirts.

When I asked Sana about the situation, she was gloomy, but still managed a smile. “It is getting worse every day,” she told me. “We have more and more displaced people, and we can’t reach all the families and children who need us. But we want to continue this work. We owe it to these children.”

The centre’s art, dance, sports and music activities offer children affected by the conflict a safe place where they can forget about the horrors outside, if only briefly.

A centre like the one we visited has become one of the very few places where children and mothers can feel protected and safe.

*Children’s names have been changed.


 

 

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