In Lebanon, Child Friendly Spaces Provide a Safe Environment for Syrian Refugee Children to Learn and Play
Silje Vik Pedersen, UNICEF
TRIPOLI, Lebanon (October 5, 2012) — “When my school was destroyed, my dream of becoming a doctor was destroyed,” says Asu*, 11. He is sitting in the courtyard of the Wadi Annakhle public school, outside Tripoli, which is housing Syrian refugees. He looks down. “There was a lot of shooting and bombs where we lived in Syria, and even the mosque was destroyed. It was terrible, and I saw homeless children in the streets, children who didn’t have food.”
Asu is one of thousands of boys and girls who have had to flee the fighting in the Syrian Arab Republic. Originally from Aleppo, the young boy and his family arrived in Lebanon four months ago, leaving behind everything they owned. “When we came here, we had nothing, and we didn’t have enough food to eat,” he says. “My brother and I wanted to find a school to continue our education and fulfill our dreams, but in the beginning it was difficult and we stayed at home.”
With the situation deteriorating in the Syrian Arab Republic, more and more children have been arriving in Lebanon with stories of fighting and destruction. Field trips conducted by UNICEF and partners reveal that the psychological impact of violence on Syrian children has been profound. Many children and their families have been struggling with fear and stress as a result of the violence they have witnessed and the displacement from their homes and communities.
Adding to their stress is the tense and volatile situation in Lebanon and the fear that the fighting will spill over into the country in which they have taken refuge. Asu recalls the fear he felt a month ago, when fighting again erupted in Tripoli. “I heard the shooting outside our house," he says. “I felt so scared, as it reminded me of Syria.”
Healing and Normalcy through Safe Spaces
There is an urgent need for safe places where children can access psychosocial support to regain a sense of normalcy in their lives, among friends. UNICEF supports such spaces, called Child Friendly Spaces, in facilities housing refugees and internally displaced persons, such as Wadi Annakhle public school.
UNICEF Child Protection and Gender-Based Violence Specialist Merrin Waterhouse describes encouraging results: “In the Child Friendly Spaces, the children are able to play with each other, make new friends and talk about what is happening in their lives. This is helping them feel good about their life again and feel safe. We can see that it is making a huge difference.”
Activities in the Child Friendly Space in Wadi Annakhle public school, implemented by UNICEF’s partner War Child Holland, focus on building the children’s self-confidence and relationships. However, in the beginning, it was difficult to get children to participate, as one of the facilitators, Marwa, recalls.
“When the children first came here, they were very afraid of the teachers and the other students,” she explains. “They felt inferior, as they came as refugees, and they behaved aggressively. But, during the time in the [Child Friendly Space] and with the teachers’ help and support, they have settled, become more self-confident and started to express themselves in a positive way.”
Returning to School
An important part of the activities is to integrate the Syrian children with their Lebanese peers and the community in which they are living. With the school year approaching, integration is an important step to encourage the Syrian children to enroll in school.
Rania, 9, is from Homs. She arrived in Lebanon with her family five months ago. In the Syrian Arab Republic, she was in the third grade. “I like being here, as I can go to school and I have made new friends,” she says, smiling shyly. “I love Syria, and I hope I can go back one day. I also love drawing, and I want to become a drawing teacher when I grow up.”
Asu has also made friends in the Child Friendly Space. He is looking forward to returning to school so he can pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. “I hope I can go to this school, as I already know the teachers and the children here,” he says. “I still want to become a doctor so that I can help poor people in my country.”
*Names have been changed to protect children’s identities.