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At a glance: Syrian Arab Republic

Child-friendly spaces bring hope to Iraqi refugee children in Syria

© UNICEF Syria/2008/Rashidi
An Iraqi girl draws at a child-friendly space for refugee children in Jaramana, Syria.

By Annika Folkeson

DAMASCUS, Syria, 10 February 2009 – With as many as 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, it is a struggle to provide basic necessities for people who have left everything behind in their war-torn country. In this setting, the special needs of children can be overlooked.

In 2007, UNICEF and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) opened five child-friendly spaces to fill the needs of Iraqi refugee children. 

Over 11,500 Iraqi children were registered in the child-friendly spaces during 2008 and have been provided a safe place to play and interact with their peers. This is crucial in helping them overcome the stress related to their situation and to stimulate normal development.

The games organized at the spaces provide children with more than entertainment and a moment to forget about their experiences; they also allow the children to express their thoughts and process difficult memories.

© UNICEF Syria/2008/Mala
Children playing in the child-friendly space set up at a UN refugee agency registration centre in Duma, Syria.

Observing behaviour

Selma is one young girl who has been helped at a children’s centre located in Jaramana. Like the other four centres with child-friendly spaces, this one is run by SARC volunteers trained in basic psychosocial support.

Upon her arrival at the children’s centre, Selma immediately disappeared into one of the empty rooms. She did not answer questions or look anyone in the eyes. But soon, the volunteers working at the centre managed to get Selma to paint.

She drew a picture of soldiers pointing their guns at her parents, with their house in flames in the background.

By observing the behaviour and listening to the stories of refugee children, trained volunteers can detect whether a child needs additional support. Through drawing, children like Selma who are less communicative find a way to make themselves heard.

A safe place to play

Iraqi families in Syria often live in crowded conditions where children have little room to play and are frequently left to watch TV all day, if they have one. These circumstances leave the children restless, obstructing their adjustment to a new life and aggravating an already difficult situation.

© UNICEF Syria/2008/Al-shoura
Children playing with UNICEF and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers at the child-friendly space in a community centre in Qudsaya, Syria.

By being able to play with other children again, these children can regain a sense of normalcy.   

When the games and activities at the child-friendly space are not enough, children are referred to one of the Multidisciplinary Child Protection and Psychosocial Support Units that work closely with the centres. Through the special units, children in need can receive psychological assessment and support.

Counselling for mothers

Another way to give children the support they need is to assist their parents. All the child-friendly spaces have started counselling sessions for mothers, providing information on parenting skills, how to deal with the most frequent problems and how to communicate with their children.

A female psychiatrist and female psychologists have also joined the psychosocial support units to follow the cases of mothers who themselves need professional care. 

But many Iraqi children in Syria still lack adequate support, and the pressure on the centres is growing. Just last month, the centre in Seyda Zeynab received 137 new children.

Outreach efforts

In an ongoing efforts to reach out to more children, UNICEF has collaborated with the UN Relief and Works Agency and opened yet another child-friendly space in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp.

In 2009, UNICEF aims to cover the needs of Iraqi refugee children and family members in as many areas as possible, making use of the funds from the Consolidated Appeal Process undertaken by UN agencies in Syria in 2008.



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