A Mother and baby corner - a place of health and serenity
How funding from the EU ‘Refugee and Migrant Child-Health Initiative’, has enabled UNICEF and its partners to improve refugee and migrant children’s health status in Serbia.
With funding from the European Union (EU) ‘RM Child-Health Initiative’, UNICEF and its partners have supported the health and wellbeing of refugee and migrant children and their families in Serbia. As the initiative draws to a close, we look back at some highlights since its launch in 2020.
2020: A Mother and baby corner - a place of health and serenity
We met Sharife, a mother of four, at the Mother and Baby Corner (MBC) in Belgrade, run by the humanitarian organization ADRA, with support from UNICEF through the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative. Her youngest son, Shahir Milos, was 18 months old and was born with congenital heart disease. Here at the MBC, she could spend time in a safe space for women, care for her baby and take part in workshops. She could talk to a doctor about her child’s health, but also her own. Sharife was a very experienced mother. Even so, she was grateful for the advice she received at the MBC.
ADRA social worker Andja Petrovic reported that mothers really appreciated the chance to talk to a doctor about their children’s health.
“The most important thing is that all the advice from our doctor is in line with their economic circumstances and current living situation,” explained Andja. “The advice is tailored to their life and I think they particularly like that, because they can see that their situation is acknowledged.”
Sharife gladly takes advice about her child's early development, from nutrition and hygiene to regular vaccination and learning through play, which stimulates child development. Milos can now communicate in three languages, mostly in his native Persian, but also a little in English and Serbian. His mother is visibly proud. For Sharife and Milos, the Mother and baby corner is a safe space: a place of serenity.
2021: Reflections on the risks of alcohol and substance abuse among young refugees and migrants in Serbia
In 2021, Jelena Vasic, MD, trainee in child psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health (Clinic for Children and Youth) in Belgrade, shared her personal impressions of cutting-edge research on substance abuse among children and youth from refugee and migrant communities. The co-funded ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative was supporting work by UNICEF that looks beyond the provision of basic health care to safeguard the mental health of children and youth. With its support, the Institute of Mental Health was assessing the risks, scale and nature of substance use among children and youth from refugee and migrant communities to inform future prevention efforts.
Jelena talked about the lack of good data on this issue:
“It was clear that we would have a hard time finding standardized instruments to assess this specific problem. So, we had to use instruments that were standardized for the general population of children and adolescents, and we tried to adapt them for refugee and migrant children as much as possible.”
The fieldwork was the second challenge, given the diverse languages spoken by the children and adolescents. In all, 184 children and adolescents aged 11- 18 years of age were surveyed, of whom 155 (around 84 per cent) were male, in two refugee/migrant centres in Bogovadja in central Serbia and Krnjaca in Belgrade. “While most were from Afghanistan, they spoke different dialects,” said Jelena. “So we had to find a way to adapt the survey to reach everyone. Translators and cultural mediators helped us to adapt the survey successfully, so that it would work for children who spoke in different dialects.”
To minimize any potential risks, the interviewers were all residents in psychiatry, who could pause the survey and provide psychological support if they saw that this was needed. Participants were also reassured that their answers would be completely anonymous.
“This experience was so valuable,” said Jelena. “It required us to become far more sensitized to the cultural and social norms of young refugees and migrants. Hopefully, our experience will be helpful to future researchers in this field. Now we must analyse the findings, and develop practical recommendations to help these highly vulnerable children avoid the dangers and damage caused by alcohol and substance abuse.”
2022: Building trust and a new generation of frontline workers
“Just today we talked about how to cope with stress. We also learn how to recognize violence. Now we know that it's not always physical and visible, that it can also be psychological.”
Mahdieh,[i] aged 35, from Iraqi Kurdistan, at the Reception Centre in Vranje, Serbia
With support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative, UNICEF’s partner Info Park organizes workshops at its safe space for women and girls at the Reception Centre in Vranje, Serbia. Milica and Aleksandra from Info Park provide support and referrals for their physical health but psychosocial support is often the priority. “They’re often withdrawn, they don’t communicate much with others,” says Milica. “We’re trying to reach them through conversation.”
Aleksandra stresses the need to build trust. "Women at the Centre often complain about gender inequality in their intimate relationships. We are establishing trust with them so that, if they are at risk of violence, they can come to us for help, and we then refer them.”
Equipped with their new knowledge, women support each other. Together, they encouraged a woman who was suffering GBV to report the perpetrator. As a result, she was moved to a safe house.
“We tell them that they have to know their rights,” says Milica. “They have to know that they don't have to be afraid.”
Building a new generation of frontline workers
As well as enhancing the skills of today’s frontline workers, like Milica, the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative is looking ahead to support the training of those who will work with refugee and migrant children in the future.
Students are now enrolling in the Protection of Children Affected by Migration course at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, developed and piloted by UNICEF in cooperation with the University of Belgrade and the US Government. It draws on UNICEF’s experience in working with professionals from social, education and health care sectors, as well as migration management and was designed for both professionals and students – those who already work with refugee and migrant children and those who will do so in the future.
Stefani Nedovic, a social pedagogue at the Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, believes that studying with students can open new perspectives.
“Working with university students brings a new perspective. They often ask a question from an angle we wouldn’t think of because we’re on the inside, we know how the process works.”
It works both ways. Katarina Jerotic, a social work and social policy student at the Faculty of Political Sciences, was prompted to take the course when she met refugee and migrant children from the Krnjaca Asylum Centre.
“I realized just how little I knew about their needs and ways to help them,” Katarina recalled. “I’m interested in the experiences of practitioners, all the knowledge they’ve gained in the field. This experience is invaluable, and we can learn from them as much as from teachers and books.
Once they completed the course, the curiosity Stefani and Katarina felt when they enrolled was replaced by confidence in their knowledge and skills needed to work with refugee and migrant children.
Taking stock of the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative in Serbia
- 2036 refugee and migrant children were reached with community-based psychosocial support activities – more than 4 times the number originally targeted for the Initiative.
- 828 refugee and migrant children were reached with gender-based violence (GBV) prevention activities and response services – more than 1.5 times the number originally targeted.
- 3547 refugee and migrant children and parents received UNICEF-supported health literacy materials – more than 3.5 times the number originally targeted.
- Health literacy materials in six languages were distributed to children and caregivers in 18 reception and asylum centres on: access to health services, MHPSS, GBV, breastfeeding and infant and young child feeding, and substance abuse and risky behaviours to children and caregivers.
- Implementing partners: ADRA, Institute of Public Health, The Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions of Serbia (DEAPS), Danish Refugee Council, Faculty of Political Science at the University of Belgrade, Info Park, Republic Institute for Social Protection.
An independent evaluation of the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative has taken stock of its impact in Serbia since 2020. It has confirmed that the Initiative has supported a range of prevention activities in Serbia since it was launched. Around twice as many professionals have been reached as originally intended, with workshops for a wide range of participants, including educators, trainers, guardians from centres for social work, Commissariat staff, and frontline health staff such as doctors and psychologists.
For example, UNICEF has been able to build capacity not only to respond to substance abuse among refugee and migrant children and adolescents, but also to create a more proactive, preventive environment to address this challenge. This allows service providers to respond to urgent cases, and gives them the tools to identify and refer the children and adolescents who are at risk.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with support from the ‘RM Child-Health’ Initiative, UNICEF prioritized the distribution of hygiene kits and COVID-19 awareness. Partners were supported to create WhatsApp social groups for different age groups and provided with ideas for coping with lockdowns. WhatsApp and Viber groups also provided information on health concerns, mental health, protection services and asylum procedures. Training materials were adapted for delivery through distance learning and there was increased demand for printed health literacy materials, which were amended to include COVID-19 related issues. The pandemic also led to a dramatic increase in demand for hygiene packages for refugee and migrant families: a stark reminder of the need to pre-position such supplies as a vital part of emergency preparedness.
This story is part of the Project ‘Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South Eastern Europe’, Co-funded by the Health Programme of the European Union (the ‘RM Child-Health’ initiative). It represents the views of the author only and is her sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the European Health and Digital Executive Agency (HaDEA) or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.
 The Adventist Development and Relief Agency
 UNICEF (2021). Interim Report, p.12
 IOD PARC, Evaluation of the UNICEF Project: Strengthening Refugee and Migrant Children’s Health Status in Southern and South-Eastern Europe
 Government representative
 Funded from another project
 UNICEF CO staff
 UNICEF CO staff
 UNICEF CO staff
 UNICEF CO staff