BY KEZIA M’CLELLAND
It can seem on the surface that things in Syria are improving because the country is out of our mainstream news in the West. However, in fact, the situation remains very difficult and dangerous.
In partnership with the Lebanon-based NGO, MERATH, we have been running three Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) inside Syria, reaching about 750 children.
Two of them are in areas that have been severely affected by violence and conflict in the last year. In September, we heard that one of the towns had been under attack by armed groups. In the bombings, 12 people died, five of them children – including a 13 year-old girl from the CFS.
Although many of the children and families have known someone die because of the conflict, this is the first time we’ve heard that it is one of the children in our projects, and this was a very difficult time for the team there.
Given these continuing dangers and difficulties of life inside Syria, people continue to be forced to flee their homes; one million have done so in the last year alone.
Lebanon continues to receive and host large numbers of Syrian refugees, and Viva and MERATH have continued to work alongside the local Church there as they seek to support Syrian families and children.
A real story of hope over the last year has been our Little Friendly Space (LFS) – like a CFS, but for younger children.
In a community where there was nothing at all for children under five, we worked with church and refugee community to set up a project meeting the needs identified by community research a year before.
Naima is from Aleppo, Syria, and her two youngest daughters are attending the LFS. She says that the LFS is one of the things that gives her hope.
Naima was worried before sending one of her daughters because she was shy and fearful. However, once her daughter began to attend the LFS, she showed great improvement in overcoming her social anxiety. Her daughter now has friends and plays with the other children. Naima is happy to see her children grow in a safe environment.
This so important! Where previously, under-fives often spent time with no stimulation and were even left alone at home, these children are now in a safe place, learning, and having the chance to socialise and meet other children. It was wonderful to see for myself the LFS “graduation” a couple of weeks ago!
Another significant sign of hope in recent months has come from our CFS projects back in Syria.
In a previous blog post I shared how our Damascus CFS was affected by bombings in Eastern Ghouta in the spring of this year, but that instead of closing, the team saw it as an opportunity to move location and to reach more children.
I recently met the co-ordinator of that CFS, George, who explained:
“We are now able to reach around 200 three to 15-year-old children with much-needed psychosocial support-based activities and games. I am happy to say that the CFS has become a place for children from all backgrounds. As you can imagine, this a huge symbol of hope for the future of our country. Those children are learning co-existence; how they can get to know each other and live together in a respectful way.
“I’m touched as children I meet open up to us about their feelings and their daily lives because they feel they are safe with us. Recently, a girl I had just given crayons for a craft activity started crying and told me she had seen crayons on TV but never actually held any.
“I was speechless. It made me realise how in need the families we help are. As a result, we decided to give every child in the CFS some small Christmas gifts, including crayons.
“I have also been strongly encouraged by the activities we have been implementing for the parents. After meeting with them several times, we held a training on parenting skills and supporting children.
“On the last day I was pleasantly surprised to see that no one wanted the training to stop. One of the mothers attending the training seemed very familiar to me. When I went to ask her if we knew each other, she told me she used to be my teacher in school. She thanked me with all her heart for everything we are doing for the children and she was about to cry.”
I loved this story from George, because it shows how the CFS projects are a real response to the immediate need of children for safe places – but at the same time, operating in a way that has lasting impact and gives hope for the future because it’s led by people who are already rooted in the community.
We can’t protect children in these places from all harm – and this is a continually heartbreaking reality.
That’s why I’m so glad we have the chance to work with amazing people like this – both Syrian and Lebanese – bringing Viva’s tools and resources and learning, and then also sharing what we learn here more widely as we develop our Children in Emergencies programme.
It’s a privilege to see some of the most vulnerable children kept safe from harm and having hope again for the future.
Photos: MERATH, Diala Ghassan/MSF