Safe spaces for displaced children
How Child Friendly Spaces provide learning, playing, and healing support
In 2018, Abdulkarim Mohamad Ismael Atim and his family fled their home following conflict and tribal clashes. Today they are among thousands of families living in Otash internally displaced camp, the second largest in South Darfur and home to displaced persons from several parts of the Darfur region.
When Abdulkarim first arrived at the camp, life was not easy. Together with other young people, they looked for places to go to after their routines were interrupted. Everything changed when they identified a Child Friendly Space (CFS) that provided support as well as the fun and recreational activities they needed at the time.
“The child friendly space was so active. The people we met there received us very well. I, my siblings and the other children were registered instantly,” he shared.
Filled with fun activities, the spaces where also places where they met people that they talked to about what was happening in their lives. He would later learn that these were social workers and they provided psychosocial support and counselling.
“Every time I talked to them, I felt better and safer away from home,” he continued.
Seven years down the road, Abdulkarim is an animator at a Child Friendly Space in Otash, South Darfur run by the Child Development Fund with support from UNICEF. Having benefitted from the services and activities of a child friendly space, Abdulkarim understands the importance and impact his work and contribution has on children that have been uprooted from their homes.
Once an attendee now an animator
It is mid-morning and the gates of Otash CFS space are open.
Abdulkarim and his team welcome and settle in children and young people. A few young ones stroll in carrying their siblings while others run through the gate, heading straight to the play activities. The animators are available to support all the children.
While the older ones engage in sports activities like volleyball, soccer and more, the younger ones settle for drawing and writing under a makeshift shade. Some are engaging in singing, drama, drawing and dancing with the animators. While they have fun, they learn too. Some songs have messages, the alphabet and numbers.
Some are new arrivals – they arrived in the camped a few days ago. Their drawings include weapons, knives, and houses on fire. “This is what they witnessed before they fled their homes,” Abdulkarim confirms after speaking to them.
“The beginning is always hard and many of them don’t even say a word but when given a pencil and paper, they will share their experiences through drawing. For us, that is the entry point for psychosocial support,” he continues. “With time they start drawing positive images like houses, aeroplanes and flowers.”
As more children arrive and the activities at the space increase, Abdulkarim’s work intensifies - from supporting those playing to engaging with those drawing. That is his typical day.
The CFS opens daily at 8:30 a.m. and offers many activities like storytelling, drama, athletics, threading, talks on culture and heritage which the attendees enjoy. UNICEF has trained the animators and provided recreational kits complete with instructional materials for them to use as they perform their duties.
Over the years, Abdulkarim has witnessed the benefits displaced children and young people get from attending the CFS.
When asked why child friendly spaces are important, Abdulkarim said
“They are a safe place.”
“Every child who wants to play and a person to talk too, has access to this safe place.”
A safe space and more
When the children and young people have left and the activity has gone down, the CFS is also used as a meeting place for the child protection committee. Through a unique activity known as ‘Let’s sit and drink coffee and tea,’ Abdulkarim - who also doubles as a child protection officer - and other committee members, meet weekly to discuss issues affecting children in the camp. Among the prominent ones are child labour, early marriage, prolonged school closures, trauma, post traumatic disorders, anxiety, etc .
The members have all been trained by UNICEF and equipped with information on child protection and psychosocial support. They also traverse the camp conducting awareness campaigns on child rights, gender-based violence, girls’ education and harmful traditional practices that rob children of their childhood.
According to Abdulkarim, these activities also promote social cohesion among the committee members who originate from different tribes and backgrounds.
During conflict and displacement children are more affected and their lives disrupted. Some of them have lose their parents, friends, homes, and support network. To support their healing, UNICEF and partners have set up child friendly spaces in displaced camps where children can access psychosocial support, play, skip, sing, draw, interact and enjoy childhood.