Child-friendly spaces help Sudanese refugee children overcome trauma and malnutrition at camps in Chad

© UNICEF Chad/2005/Pittenger
A refugee girl covers her face with a veil in Chad. At child-friendly spaces Sudanese refugee children have the chance to make friends, learn, laugh and recover a sense of normalcy in lives that have been uprooted.

By Jasmine Pittenger

ABECHE, Chad, 9 December 2005 – Providing the semblance of a normal childhood to refugee children – as well as professional help to those who have been traumatized – is as important as food, water, health care and education. UNICEF is supporting 46 ‘child-friendly spaces’ in five refugee camps in eastern Chad, where families have fled the fighting in the neighbouring Darfur region of Sudan.

“I remember it was a Friday when we left,” says 15-year-old Amina. “First the plane came to bomb my village, and then the soldiers came. If they found anyone alive, they would kill them.”

Amina covers part of her face with her veil. “It’s a very bad memory.”

Amina and her family walked for 4 days to escape. They now live at Iridimi Refugee Camp in eastern Chad. Sixty per cent of the 200,000 refugees from Darfur now living in the 12 camps in this part of Chad are children – and too many of them have memories like Amina’s.

“The children in the camps have lost their whole lives,” says Adolphe Mbaikouma, a UNICEF assistant child protection officer. “They lose their homes, friends, schools, sometimes their families. They ask themselves, ‘Why do we have to leave our homes? Why is there war?’

“We don’t have an answer for these questions,” says Mbaikouma, “but I’ve seen children arrive at the child-friendly spaces seeming really afraid, and then becoming much more relaxed. There’s a big change. Now the children smile, they’re happy, they play.”

Child-friendly spaces provide psychosocial support to children and adolescents, stimulating their learning and well-being in a protective environment. Activities range from sports to learning about hygiene to parental sensitization. Also they give children access to adults other than their parents, someone they might feel more comfortable asking sensitive questions of – questions on topics like HIV/AIDS for example. The spaces can motivate children not attending school to enrol – there are staff trained to observe children for post-traumatic stress disorder – and to refer any showing the signs to medical partners for counselling.

© UNICEF Chad/2005/Pittenger
Children greet a visitor at Gaga Camp in Chad. ‘Some of the children used to run away as soon as an adult came close to them,’ says UNICEF assistant child protection officer Adolphe Mbaikouma.

Open to all youngsters, the child-friendly spaces are located within walking distance of tents throughout the camps. Some, located next to the therapeutic feeding centres in the camps, serve a special purpose:

“The most vulnerable children are those in therapeutic or supplementary feeding,” says Martin Masumbuko, a child protection coordinator for the Christian Children’s Fund. “An emaciated child has no appetite,” he continues. “They just want to be with their mother. But children learn from each other. Seeing another child sit upright, they will start to sit upright. Then they say, ‘If they can run, why can’t I run?’ When they start being interested in playing, they also get an appetite.”

The effects of child-friendly spaces are visible in many other ways, he adds:

“At first the children were drawing helicopters, guns, blood, violence, men on horses, houses on fire, bombs and people with one leg. Every type of violence you can imagine – including sexual violence against women and girls – they brought out in their drawings. Now this is beginning to change; they are drawing nature, flowers, donkeys, rivers, beautiful faces and classrooms. The child-friendly spaces have begun to change the way the children look at things.”

For older children like Amina, now a smiling member of a volleyball team at one of the spaces, the activities have also meant a change in perspective.

“The girls especially are hooked on volleyball,” says Mbaikouma. “They’ve found something in their lives here to really be excited about. There’s trust there, people to trust. And they gain confidence.”

But perhaps most of all, as Mbaikouma points out: “Sharing laughter helps release some of the bad memories.”




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