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Providing protection and emotional care for children living in camps in Cameroon

© UNICEF Cameroon/ 2008/Bahringer
UNICEF is working to ensure that children have access to learning and recreation spaces while living in a temporary site in northern Cameroon.

By Christyne Bahringer

KOUSSERI, Cameroon, 20 May 2008 – The bridge connecting Kousseri, Cameroon to N’djamena, Chad takes about five minutes to walk across, but in the hot afternoon sun, it might feel like much longer – especially if the bridge is crowded, as it was in the first days of February when tens of thousands fled violence between the Chadian military and rebel forces.

It was during his walk to safety that 11-year-old Ahmed was separated from his mother, sisters and brothers. There were many children like Ahmed who were lost in the crowds during the first few days of this emergency. He remains in the care of a local foster family while authorities try to trace his family.

“For most children, finding their families takes only hours or perhaps a day or two,” says UNICEF Cameroon Protection Specialist Ytske Charlotte Van Winden. “But Ahmed’s case is particularly difficult. It appears that his family may have been running to join other friends or family in a nearby town, rather than taking refuge in the camp. It may take longer, but we are hopeful he will be back with them soon.”

Reducing risk through 'neighbourhoods'

Reuniting families is only one facet of UNICEF’s protection agenda when it comes to supporting the needs of vulnerable children and women.

© UNICEF Cameroon/ 2008/Bahringer
Thousands of children and families crossed this bridge linking southern Chad with northern Cameroon in search of refuge from violence in early February.

Along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF is leading efforts to ensure that families, partners and volunteers are aware of the dangers for children in Maltam Camp, a temporary site where an estimated 8,000 people are currently residing.

Keeping children safe is particularly challenging in a refugee setting, where children are apt to wander off with new friends or become lost in the sea of tents while trying to find the latrine or nearest water point.

‘Neighborhoods’ help children

Perhaps this is one reason why Maltam Camp is taking on the features of a real village through the creation of Quartiers, which is French for “neighborhoods.” Groups of families write the names of the neighbourhoods they used to call home on their tents.

Not only do these designations help children and families keep track of each other, but they create a sense of community.

“I am caring for 12 children right now,” says Miriam, who has been at Maltam for a few months now. “We are fortunate to have this place to stay, but there are so many things that we are missing and we are afraid for our children. They need to go to school, they need to play. And we must keep them safe.”

© UNICEF Cameroon/ 2008/Bahringer
Social workers make tent-to-tent visits, helping to provide psychosocial support to traumatised children and raise awareness among parents and caregivers about the need to protect their children from various dangers.

Social workers promote awareness

Since early February, the Cameroon Ministry of Social Affairs in Kousseri in partnership with UNICEF have trained five workers to promote awareness about situations of violence, abuse and sexual exploitation in the camp.

The social workers have learned ways to help traumatised children and women begin to recover from violence..

These social workers are not working alone – there are hundreds of humanitarian staff, volunteers and security agents working together to keep Maltam running and provide services to children and families, many of whom are UNICEF-trained.

“We have to be vigilant at all times; for right now, the most important thing is to keep children and families from experiencing any further tragedies. It is a huge challenge to create a safe and protective environment for children in a setting like this,” Ms. Van Winden says.




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