|A facilitator leads Palestinian refugee students in a group discussion at a UNICEF-supported adolescent-friendly learning space in Syria.|
By Marixie Mercado
HUSEINEYEH CAMP, Syria, 24 June 2008 – If Aziza Melkash were not in this yellow-curtained room among 31 other teenagers intently discussing research findings, she would be holed up at home with little to do and nowhere to go.
As an eighth-grader living in Huseineyeh camp near Damascus, Aziza first came to the UNICEF-supported adolescent-friendly learning space (AFLS) here in 2005 to learn about child abuse. The diminutive adolescent and scores of her peers in Palestinian refugee camps across Syria have since learned something even more important: how to recognize what needs to change in their communities, and how to be part of that change.
“Now, when I see something wrong, I speak up,” says Aziza.
Since 2005, up to 3,500 adolescents have received AFLS training on child rights and life skills – ranging from leadership and communication to healthy behaviour – as part of a Norwegian-funded, UNICEF-designed programme to help young Palestinian refugees better protect themselves and contribute to their communities.
A safe place to spend time
“The learning centres provide adolescents with an opportunity to meet and interact that they otherwise would not have,” said United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) community development social worker Firaz Shehabi. “There are almost no places like this, especially for girls. Here they have a safe and supportive environment, they can participate and their voices are heard.”
Across Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, there are few public spaces other than streets and narrow alleyways between houses. Most girls’ lives revolve around the home and school; boys end up tangling with traffic in the crowded alleyways.
In four camps – Huseineyeh, Jaramana, Lattakyia and Yarmouk – groups of 25 to 35 adolescents have also been trained in ‘action research’: how to collectively select an issue, conduct research, collate information and communicate findings and recommendations back to their communities. They have focused on topics such as school drop-out rates, smoking and drug use.
Thinking through problems
One participant, Mohammad, says his group focused its research on the issue of smoking because it was particularly dangerous for young people and so little was known about its consequences. The youths divided themselves into groups; some did desk reviews of research and others interviewed school headmasters and a cigarette seller, while another group conducted field observations.
All of these activities were implemented in partnership with UNRWA and the General Authority for Palestinian Arab Refugees.
The training Mohammad received at the AFLS has enabled him to think through problems and act upon them. “I knew that shyness was a weakness. If I am weak, then I cannot change anything – so I needed to change,” he said.
“I feel like I am a much better person now. I feel like I am a leader.”