Maha Damaj: "All refugee children need support and protection"
On World Refugee Day, Maha shares her story and advocates firmly for the protection of every child.
As refugees from Ukraine crossed the border into Moldova, Maha Damaj, UNICEF Moldova Representative, was struck by memories from her own childhood. On World Refugee Day, Maha shares her story and advocates firmly for the protection of every child.
At the Palanca border crossing point, Maha recalls the lines of Ukrainian refugees as far as she could see. Mothers wrestled with pushchairs and backpacks, small children clutched well-loved soft toys.
“I still remember one of the first mothers who crossed the border with her child,” says Maha. “She was visibly exhausted as she stood in line waiting for the bus, pushing her baby with one hand and juggling the other child in her arms. Is she still in Moldova or one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have since moved on?”
As the number of refugees entering Moldova continued to climb, vivid memories of Maha’s childhood flashed in her mind. In 1975, the Lebanese Civil War broke out resulting in an estimated 120,000 deaths. Close to one million people left the country, including five-year-old Maha, her mother and two siblings. When the airport abruptly closed, her father was stuck outside the country and unable to join them.
“My mother had to find a way to get us out. I remember the stress of getting our passports issued and crossing the border into Syria. But it’s testament of my mom's bravery and courage that I don't remember this now as a traumatic experience.”
In Moldova, Maha has seen the impact of the war in Ukraine on mothers and children who arrive traumatised. Maha’s voice trails off and she pauses, tears welling in her eyes. “It breaks my heart that it's still happening today.”
It’s early June and Maha is again in Palanca, just 2.5 kilometers from Ukraine. At a UNICEF Blue Dot centre, Maha takes a seat next to Elena, a teacher from Sergheevca, Ukraine, while her 14-year-old daughter Nastea is distracted by a hot glue gun.
Elena fled the war in Ukraine with her daughter Nastea who has just finished 8th grade. They are on their way to meet a friend in Germany and Maha asks if they will go back to Ukraine. Elena hesitates before responding softly ,“We’ll see.” She loves her village, her home and her teaching career which has spanned 27 years, but hundreds of schools have been attacked across the country and it is difficult to know when she will see her students again.
Engrossed in her art project, Nastea reaches for a wooden heart to glue onto a thick piece of card. A UNICEF-partner child protection officer stands close by to offer support, wearing a distinctive white vest with a large Blue Dot.
“I came here from Ukraine, to flee the war, says Nastea.” I wrote my Instagram and Tik Tok account on a piece of paper so that every child or youth person who visits this Center can find me and we can become friends. I really like the staff here at the Blue Dot, it's a nice atmosphere.”
To date, seven Blue Dots have been set up in Moldova. These one-stop safe havens are providing support and services for families on the move and have been established along major transit routes. Social workers offer critical support and protection services for children and families and children who cross the border unaccompanied.
Maha is notified that a 17-year-old boy has just been stopped at the border. Natalia, a Child protection officer supported by UNICEF, advises that the situation is alarming. The boy had travelled from Uzbekistan and was attempting to get into Ukraine with an older man whose name he didn’t know.
“We evaluated the situation, referred the boy to specialists, and accommodated him in a Refugee Center until we can identify his parents or a caregiver to take him home,” says Natalia. “He will be able to access the services he needs, including psychological counseling. For us, it is very important that every child is safe and we prevent tragic cases of child trafficking,” said Natalia.
Children on the move are at increased risk of child trafficking and exploitation. UNICEF, in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior and international law enforcement agencies including INTERPOL, organized and conducted nationwide trainings for border police, the Centre for Combating Trafficking in Persons and NGOs.
Maha speaks at pace about the numerous ways the child protection teams, health teams and educational staff are working across sectors to support refugees by scaling up programmes for children and their families. Refugee children from Ukraine now have free access to health services, more than 52,000 refugees, including children, have received monthly financial cash assistance and over 9,000 children and caregivers have found respite
“Children and young people need to know they are not forgotten. If there's one thing UNICEF always endeavours to do is to make sure that the light always shines on the children and that their voices are heard”
On World Refugee Day, Maha insists that all refugee children need to be able to access the services and support they need, particularly as there are many crises around the world that do not receive the same media attention as the war in Ukraine.
“Children and young people need to know they are not forgotten. If there's one thing UNICEF always endeavours to do is to make sure that the light always shines on the children and that their voices are heard,” says Maha proudly, standing next to a small photo from her childhood.
For every child safety.