Syrian children cultivate some happiness at a communal shelter

Children plant seeds to transform a child-friendly space

By Basma Ourfali
A boy holds a plant, Syria
UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2016/Ourfali
02 February 2016

Across the Syrian Arab Republic, children are living in an environment marked by violence, deprivation and exploitation. See how one group of children are turning a safe space in their shelter in Aleppo into a place in which hope buds.

ALEPPO, Syrian Arab Republic, 2 February 2016 – “I felt proud of myself when the first buds sprouted. It was the most beautiful day ever,” says Ahmed.

The 10-year-old boy lives with his family in a dormitory that has been converted to a communal shelter for people who have fled conflict. Entire families of four to ten are staying in rooms designed for two university students.

It is in a safe enclave in this space that Ahmed and the other children have developed a new hobby – horticulture.

Fraught with danger

Across the country, children are living in an environment marked by violence, deprivation and exploitation. Simply going to school can be fraught with danger, or impossible. One in every four schools has been destroyed, damaged or occupied. 

As conflict drives more families towards poverty, children are increasingly forced to leave school and take up jobs, often in poor conditions and for low wages. Displacement is also forcing children to leave school, disrupting their education. All told, more than 2 million children are out of school.

An estimated 2.8 million children have been displaced inside the country, many of them multiple times.

The day-to-day struggle means children are carrying out such daily tasks as fetching water, because water infrastructure has been damaged. Such simple tasks can have grave results; children have been killed by explosives as they fetched water for their families.

A space to be safe

Ahmed and his friends attend a child-friendly space supported by UNICEF, within the university camp. Here in this safe environment, children can gather, learn and play away from the conflict surrounding them. In places of active conflict, UNICEF’s mobile teams visit communities to provide daily services.

UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2016/Ourfali

The children initially started their experiment to block the view of a garbage heap. Now, they eagerly tend their garden, a respite from the day’s challenges.

At Ahmed’s child-friendly space, the play area overlooks a garbage pile. And so, he and the other children decided to take action. “We wanted to change the view of our centre,” he explains. They came up with the idea of planting trees.

Everyone was excited. Community volunteers like Mohammed suggested recycling old cans, for pots, inviting the children to bring empty cans of beans. Canned beans are one of the most common food items distributed to people displaced in Aleppo.

It took almost no time to line up over 300 cans. Each child decorated a pot. The volunteers provided them with fast-growing lentil and bean seeds.

Over the next days and weeks, and as first shoots and then tendrils grew, so did the children’s enthusiasm. “It was heart-warming to watch their patience, optimism and self-esteem grow as their planting yielded good results,” says Mohammed.

A sense of hope, and a hope for peace

When the first plants started to bloom, the children were thrilled. “The first thing Ahmed does every morning is check on his plants,” reports his mother.

“Gardening helped children grow a sense of responsibility towards their baby plants, and, most importantly, a sense of hope,” adds Bayan, a volunteer.

The challenges are still there, but every morning the children are finding their own way to stand firm against them. “I know that one day I will wake up to see my plant grown into a big tree, as big as my hope for peace,” says Ahmed.

In 2015, nearly 440,000 children attended 186 UNICEF-supported child-friendly spaces and mobile services across the country.