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Child-friendly spaces aid recovery in Iraq

By Lindsay Mackenzie

Displaced from her home and separated from her parents, a young girl in a camp in northern Iraq finds a safe place where she can learn, play and make friends.

DOHUK GOVERNATE, Iraq, 28 October 2015 – Besma* is only 9 years old, yet she has survived an ordeal no child should ever have to face. After their village in Iraq’s Sinjar district was taken over by armed groups in August last year, she and her family were held captive for months. Besma and her aunt were eventually released, but her mother, father, sister and two brothers are still missing.

© UNICEF Iraq/2015/Mackenzie
Children attend the child-friendly space in a camp in Dohuk governate for Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes. The space provides children opportunities to play, learn, create and spend time with friends and teachers.

Today the young girl and her aunt, along with Besma’s grandmother, Jalila, live in a camp for displaced families in northern Iraq.

The 14,000 residents of the camp form just a small fraction of the 3.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced within the country since January 2014. The vast majority of Iraq’s displaced live outside of camps, with relatives or among host communities, taking shelter where they can.

While organized settlements like this one in Dohuk can at least provide basic services and a protective environment, for children like Besma who have experienced trauma and separation from family members, the feelings of fear and distress are difficult to overcome. 

Jalila says that Besma gets upset when she thinks about her parents and her siblings. Sometimes Jalila is jolted awake in their tent by the sound of her granddaughter’s nightmares.

“Besma has terrible dreams about that time,” she says. “At night I can hear her yelling, ‘They’re coming. They’re coming.’”

Better each day

Earlier this year, Jwan, who works with UNICEF to help people affected by the current crises, met Besma during a routine visit to the camp and noticed that she seemed isolated and upset.

“She was very withdrawn,” Jwan says. “She wasn’t participating in any of the activities in the camps and didn’t seem to have any friends.”

Jwan showed Besma the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space (CFS) in her camp. The space provides children opportunities to play, learn, create and spend time with their friends and teachers – a safe place where children can be children, despite the difficulties of their situation.

© UNICEF/IRAQ2015-00188/Khuzaie
Children play on a swing set in a child-friendly space in Al-Takya Al-Kasnazaniya Camp in Bagdad's Al-Rasheed district. Most of the camp's residents have been displaced by violence in Anbar governorate.

“At first Besma was reluctant to go to the CFS,” Jwan says. “Now she never wants to leave.”

The CFS also serves as an important entry point for health and education interventions for children. If staff notice behaviours that indicate a need for additional support, children can be referred to the appropriate psychological or health services; if staff learn that children are out of school, they can encourage them to return to class.

Around 100 children from the camp come to the space each day. On a recent morning, Besma and her friends played games, sang songs and made art.

“I like to come here because I get to see my friends, and I can draw and skip,” Besma says.

While dodging a flurry of fluorescent hula hoops, Marwa, a volunteer at the CFS, looked towards Besma as she laughed with her friends.

“I’ve seen a huge improvement since her first day,” Marwa says. “Besma is more outgoing and she’s made a lot of friends. Each day she’s a little better.”


* Some names have been changed.



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