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At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

Child-friendly spaces offer respite for Raqqa’s displaced children

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2017/Souleiman
Rama, 8, sits in a tent in Ain Issa displacement camp. The camp is now home to 7,500 people displaced from ongoing violence in Raqqa, who are now living in tents in the desert – under harsh conditions and soaring temperatures.

By Monica Awad and Delil Soulieman

RAQQA, Syrian Arab Republic, 23 August 2017 – When 12-year-old Rahaf and her family fled from violence in their hometown of Raqqa, they got caught in the crossfire.

“We were terrified,” she says. “As we escaped Raqqa, my cousin was hit by a sniper, and we had to rush him to a nearby hospital.”

Rahaf has seven sisters and two brothers, and although they are all young, they have already experienced great loss. Her eldest brother was killed while her mother was away fetching bread for the family.

“My brother’s death devastated us, especially my mom,” Rahaf says. “Now, every time my mom hears that a child was killed, she starts crying.”

Children trapped in Raqqa as attacks and fighting intensifies

The ongoing military operation in Raqqa has cut off the city from all directions, trapping an estimated 10,000–25,000 people inside – almost half of them children.

UNICEF is deeply concerned about the safety of these children amidst intense fighting. Desperately needed humanitarian assistance isn’t reaching children and families trapped inside the city, putting them at risk of disease and even death.

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2017/Souleiman
Rahaf, 12, holds a mine risk education book at a UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in Ain Issa camp. Children and their caregivers can receive psychosocial support at the centre, as well as mine risk education on how to protect themselves from landmines and explosives.

Hundreds of thousands displaced

Rahaf’s family was one of many to flee – more than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes since early April. Nearly half of the displaced are children.

The family eventually arrived safely at Ain Issa camp – one of five main camps for internally displaced persons from Raqqa. Ain Issa hosts some 7,500 people, who currently live in tents in the desert under harsh conditions with soaring temperatures.

Fourteen-year-old Muhannad and his family were displaced three times before finally arriving at Ain Issa. Their journey from Raqqa – a distance of just 50 km – took seven hours.

“We were very scared,” he recalls. “We escaped under crossfire, and we were afraid of landmines.”

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2017/Souleiman
Muhannad, 14, shows off the drawing he made at a UNICEF-supported child friendly space at Ain Issa camp in Raqqa. He hasn't been to school in three years and misses it desperately.

Safe spaces for children

Both Rahaf and Muhannad desperately miss school, which they were forced to leave a long time ago. They are among the 1.7 million children in the Syrian Arab Republic who are not in school, with another 1.35 million at risk of dropping out.

“I used to love school, and I was very angry when I left,” says Muhannad. “I wish I could go back… and become a teacher or a physician.”

Rahaf had to leave her school after completing grade five. “I want to become an artist when I grow up, and I hope to teach children how to draw.”

Rahaf and Muhannad are able to find some respite in the UNICEF-supported child-friendly spaces at Ain Issa camp, which provide safe areas for children to play, sing and make friends. A variety of recreational and mine risk education activities are held at these centres, that aim to protect children from harm while restoring a sense of normality to their lives.

Children and their caregivers can also receive psychosocial support at the centres to help them overcome the trauma they have experienced.

Although Rahaf and Muhannad have one simple dream – to return home safely – the child-friendly spaces help provide structure and support to children like them who have seen too much violence and chaos.

“I come to this centre to forget my fears,” says Muhannad. “I feel safe here.”

Read next:

Violence and displacement stalk children in Raqqa

Children displaced from Raqqa find respite from fear and stress

Syrian crisis

Humanitarian action for children: Syrian Arab Republic



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