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In Turkey, mobile child-friendly spaces bridge gaps between Syrian and Turkish children

© UNICEF Turkey/2017/Lorch
Children join hands in a circle in front of a large truck. The truck, operated by the Turkish Red Crescent in partnership with UNICEF, is one of two Mobile Child Friendly Spaces in Turkey.

By Donatella Lorch

IZMIR, Turkey, 24 July 2017 – Raghad is not going to let anyone stop her. The 12-year-old Syrian refugee woke up at 6 am, dressed and made breakfast for her two younger brothers. Now the three of them, jackets on, scarves wrapped around their necks, stand at the door, smiling as they tell their mother to hurry up.

“I am not going,” says their mother Khoula. “It’s raining. It’s cold. I cannot bring you. Just go by yourselves.”

The children ultimately win the standoff and the four head off for a one-hour bus ride to their destination: their school parking lot. The rain has turned to drizzle but the night’s downpour had created large puddles. The siblings pay no attention. They are mesmerized by a long tractor-trailer, painted with a picket fence and dancing children in reds, blues, yellows and greens.

The inside is even more welcoming. In the 45 sq meter one-room activity area, balloons hang from the ceiling, coloured mats cover the floor and miniature modern sofa chairs line the walls.

“This place is so beautiful,” whispers Raghad. “It’s also warm.”

© UNICEF Turkey/2017/Lorch
Turkish Red Crescent youth workers focus on team communication, ice-breaking activities as well as provide structured discussion on child rights, hygiene and bullying among others topics. This day’s theme focused on traffic rules.

The truck, operated by The Turkish Red Crescent (TRC) in partnership with UNICEF, is one of two Mobile Child Friendly Spaces (MCFS) in Turkey. Like 28 Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) that function in centres across Turkey, the two trucks provide a safe space where Syrian refugee children can play, learn, and receive psychosocial support. The second truck works out of Sanliurfa, in Turkey’s southeast.

Turkey is home to more than 3 million Syrian refugees of which more than half are children. The mobile child-friendly spaces also include Turkish children from local communities and acts as a bridge to ease social cohesion.

The CFS trucks stay parked for as long as two months near Turkish schools with large numbers of Syrian students. UNICEF estimates that as many as 400 students a month attend a mobile CFS. In addition to play activities, the TRC youth workers focus on team communication, ice-breaking activities as well as providing structured discussions on child rights, hygiene and bullying among others topics. Today’s morning session is for 8- to 11-year-olds.

The truck had arrived the day before, on the last day of the Turkish school term. TRC youth workers had introduced themselves to families and teachers and explained how they worked. The next morning, 20 children sit down together on the mats.

© UNICEF Turkey/2017/Lorch
A child draws on a piece of paper. Coloured mats cover the floor of the 45 sq metre one-room activity area, with miniature modern sofa chairs lining the walls.

"Today we have a mixed group of Syrian and Turkish children,” explains Hilal, 30, a TRC youth worker. “We invited the families to join us too. Parents are very important. We want them to be aware and to be fully comfortable to leave their children.”

Like many Turkish public schools that accept Syrian refugees, this school is overcrowded and students attend classes in shifts. The truck is a special treat. Hilal and her teammates know how to make learning fun.

Today’s theme focuses on increasing awareness of traffic rules. Drawing pads and coloured pencils are distributed while a TRC youth worker explains traffic lights, emergency numbers and street signage. Gradually, the room fills with chatter and laughter.

“I love to draw,” Raghad says in a half whisper as she hunches over her pad near her brothers. “We draw all the time at home.”

The final lesson consists of placing road signs on a monster-size road map. Raghad’s two brothers raise their hands enthusiastically, jumping out of their chairs to get the youth worker’s attention.

Children eagerly raise their hands inside of the child-friendly space as their mother looks on. Families are also invited into the spaces to watch or participate in the activities.

Their mother, Khoula, who was a high school geography teacher back at home, sits nearby, pleased that her children are making friends. The family has been in Turkey for only four months and already Khoula says the children are mixing their beginners English with Turkish. Raghad and her brothers now study six hours of Turkish a week. By next year, they will be doing 15 hours a week. They need to reach a level of fluency before joining regular classes.

Adapting to life in Turkey has been much harder for Khoula and her husband. She is unemployed and her husband, also a school teacher, now works on a road-paving crew. He earns 70TL (US$19) a day. Khoula aches for her days as a teacher.

But her children’s joy visibly tempers her anxiety. She smiles as she leans over her son Mahmud’s drawing. “It’s a house,” he proudly declares.

The meeting over, the students gather outside, reluctant to go home. Two girls, one Turkish, one Syrian, walk arm-in-arm. And there is one last hug for Hilal, the TRC youth worker.

Partnership for children

In collaboration with the Turkish Red Crescent Society, UNICEF has been supporting two Mobile Child Friendly Spaces with funding from the Government of Germany (KFW), the Government of Japan and the European Union (EU Trust Fund). Each reaches at least 400 children a month. They have been working closely with the Provincial Directorate of National Education and local authorities on selecting the schools where the spaces will be located. Both Turkish and non-Turkish children are able to benefit from the spaces.

Read next:

"Some days I just have to listen": A family therapist works with Syrian refugees in Turkey

“Wherever we went, death followed us”: A Syrian family’s tragedy

Syrian crisis


Humanitarian action for children: Syrian Arab Republic



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