A toy library: a library of smiles

The children live under the same roof, eat at the same dining table in the canteen, so why wouldn't they share toys?

Vladimir Banic
Mustafa looking at the camera
UNICEF Serbia/2017/Banic

25 March 2017

Abir, a refugee from Syria, is combing her daughter’s hair after lunch.

It’s a small tradition they've had since arriving in the Reception center in Bujanovac, in Serbia.

The older daughter, eight-year-old Judy, graciously allows seven-year old Sidra to go first. And Sidra is clearly happy because she is the centre of attention.  She is sitting patiently, while her mom is combing her hair.

The two girls have spent almost their entire childhoods as refugees. They left Syria and their hometown of Damascus four years ago, and have been in Serbia for the past four months.

Parents struggle to provide a normal daily routine for their children in the centre.

Although the town of Bujanovac is nearby, many of the adults have no need to go there because they cannot seek work, and for children it’s too painful to look at toys in the shop windows, toys which their parents cannot buy.

Abir and her family are waiting for the war in Syria to be over, or for their turn to continue their journey to Western Europe. In search of a better life – for their children.

Mustafa loved his blue toy car very much. He was always carrying it with him, putting it under his pillow when sleeping. And then we lost it while on the boat heading for Greece. He cried for a week because of that.

Mohammad (father)

Sidra and Judy regularly meet up with Mustafa from Afghanistan and Kimia, Bardia and Arshia, two brothers and a sister, also from Afghanistan.

In the mornings they learn some Serbian, listen to music, dance and play, all in an attempt to make the best of their childhoods in the Reception centre.

Mustafa's father is watching them through a glass door. He recalls crossing the rough sea with his son.

“Now it's good for him here. But he's suffering because he's not with his mother. The two of us are travelling alone,” Mohammad Amini explains.

He says that they brought only one of Mustafa's toys with them, but that he wishes they hadn't done that.

“Mustafa loved his blue toy car very much. He was always carrying it with him, putting it under his pillow when sleeping. And then we lost it while on the boat heading for Greece. He cried for a week because of that,” Mohammad says with sadness in his eyes.

Now he is watching his son who is cheerfully singing with the other children. Mustafa's holding hands with Sidra and Judy.

Suddenly, the children stop singing and start running to the room across the hall. Nothing can stop them. And it’s clear why.

Lots of toys are on the three big tables in the room. Just for them. There are balls, dolls, puzzles, teddy bears, xylophones... As if all those toy shops in town sent them the best toys they had!

The children are not taking toys from each other, they are passing the toys amongst each other, exchanging them. As if they are one big family, which, in some extraordinary way, they are. They live under the same roof, eat at the same dining table in the canteen, so why wouldn't they share toys?

Out of a group of 20 children or so, Mustafa stands out. He is enchanted. He's holding a blue car in his hands, in awe of it. Mustafa's father keeps an eye on his son. A face that was worried just moments ago is now beaming.

Sidra's and Judy's mother is also watching her daughters. Judy is picking up a little drum and handing it to Sidra. You can see that Abir's happy and proud of the way she has raised her children.

"The toy library provided by UNICEF means a lot to us because we, the refugees, do not have money to buy toys for our children. This way, the two of them borrow a toy that will stay in our room for several days until they've had their fun with it, and then they return it and take a new one. They are learning to take care of things, but also to share with other children, which is extremely important,” believes Abir.

Mustafa, Sidra, Judy, Bardia, Kimia, Arshia and many other refugee children in Serbia are members of UNICEF's toy library. They have no library cards, but their membership fee is a smile, freely offered every time they borrow toys. And a smile is priceless.