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Dealing with the distress of Lebanese children who found shelter in Syrian Zabadani camp

In the Zabadani pioneer camp near Damascus, Omar, 11, and Sali, 9, are in the playground with the other children and are happy to play freely and safely without worrying about the air strikes. Like many other Lebanese, they came with their family to Syria and found shelter in one of the many hosting sites where summer activities were cancelled to receive the fleeing refugees.

Their village in the Beqa’a valley was targeted several times by Israeli warplanes making life there impossible. Omar, the eldest in the family, remembers how children in his village ran and hid every time they heard the sound of the Israeli spy plane which roamed around the targeted area a few minutes before the actual bombarding starts. “The first plane makes a sound exactly like thunder,” Omar explains.

The day the family left their house was the most devastating. The sky was raining with bombs and the warplanes were flying on very low altitudes in an incredible speed. “I almost had a breakdown every time I heard the planes flying over the house,” the mother says, before she continues, “I thought they would throw a bomb. I was very scared for my children.” Later they all ran to the car and the father drove east towards Syria under the heavy fire.

The family reached Syria and stayed in the Zabadani camp, which is one of the biggest hosting sites in rural Damascus, accommodating around 2,000 refugees. Food, clothes, mattresses and blankets were distributed to the families by the Syrian authorities, NGOs and the community. UNICEF supported these efforts by providing personal hygiene items to the families as well as responding to the water and sanitation needs of the sites.
However, an immediate concern was expressed for children and mothers’ health. “We have to make sure that mothers continue to breastfeed to preserve the well-being of children,” says UNICEF Programme Coordinator Mr. Marc Lucet. “We have to make sure that children are immunized so that they can resist the conditions they live in today.” An urgent measles immunization campaign for children under the age of 15 was organized as well as a ‘catch-up’ campaign to complete the vaccinations of children under the age of five to prevent any childhood-disease outbreaks among the refugees.
The open spaces and the playgrounds are very important for about half of the inhabitants of this camp, the children. Activities are being organized by some volunteers, while UNICEF distributes many toys and games for the children to play and help them get over the difficult days they have witnessed.

“We are very happy here, but I want to go back home” Sali said. Later, her father explained to me that he heard their house was flattened by a bomb a few days after they left. “My brothers and I have been working for more than 30 years to build our houses and shops, and in ten minutes everything was gone,” Yousef explains. He did not find the right time yet to tell his family that there is nothing to go back to.

Among the refugees living in this camp, this family is not the less fortunate. Next door, lives three-year-old Ali. He and his family survived after a bomb struck their house but failed to explode. As they ran out of the house, another bomb hit; this time, Ali was injured. He still wakes up in the middle of the night in panic, jumps into the hands of his father, and asks “Will they shoot at us again?”

In order to deal with the distress of children who have witnessed the deaths of loved ones and the destruction of their homes and communities, UNICEF trained volunteers from the Syrian Red Crescent on psychosocial assessment and support. Child-friendly spaces will also be set up whereby children can find again a safe environment and benefit from recreational and educational activities.

Looking from outside, the camp seems just like any other place where children are spending their summer vacation. But for Sali and Omar, they are already thinking ahead and are looking forward to going back to school in September. “I want to study in the university, I love studying,” Omar says.

© UNICEF Syria/2006/0995/Al Azmeh

Children happy to play freely and safely without worrying about the air strikes. Like many other Lebanese, they came to Syria with their family and found shelter in a camp in rural Damascus.