By Alma Hassoun
UNICEF reaches children by supporting school clubs and Child Friendly Spaces, some mobile, around the Syrian Arab Republic. Staff member Alma Hassoun met a few of the Syrian children who have been displaced in Tartous.
TARTOUS, Syrian Arab Republic, 10 September 2013 – In a peaceful mountain area of rural Tartous, the fighting and destruction affecting other parts of the Syrian Arab Republic seem far.
Some 6.8 million people, or a third of the country’s total population, are affected by the ongoing conflict, including more than 3 million children. Some 4.25 million people have been displaced from their homes.
Support for childhood
I was part of a UNICEF team that visited a centre in which psychosocial support is being made available to hundreds of displaced children in the area. A UNICEF faith-based partner, Aniss Saade, provides children with a range of activities including art and sport, life skills-based education and specialized social support.
The activities, which are run at the centre as well as through three mobile teams serving surrounding villages, help children come to terms with experiences related to the conflict and return to a more normal childhood. Displaced children face many challenges, including adjusting to new lives away from their old homes, communities and friends.
UNICEF supports about 500 school clubs across the country, reaching about 160,000 children with education and psychosocial support. Children are also reached with psychosocial support through Child Friendly Spaces, including mobile teams, and adolescent activities.
Sounds of play
The centre in rural Tartous sits among olive trees and stone-tiered hillsides. The sound of excited children playing and taking part in activities carries in the cool, fresh country air. It seems like the location, itself, is a balm to these children, along with the programmes they are involved in.
When I entered the centre, about 50 young children sat on the floor concentrating on a film about hand-washing practices. They eagerly competed to answer the trainer’s questions about hygiene.
More than 4,000 families have sought shelter in this part of rural Tartous, having fled from insecurity in cities such as Homs, Aleppo and Hassakeh. Children told me how bad the sounds of the shelling in their hometowns had been.
Most families are renting apartments or living with family in the area, while others are looked after by the host community. A relatively small number of families live in shelters.
About 350 displaced children are being reached through the centre and mobile teams, which serve 52 villages, with the aim to include many more children in the programme.
Mature, for their age
Later during the visit, the children moved to the outside yard for art activities. Volunteers distributed small plastic palettes and white paper. Children sat in groups on the grass and painted. Many of the scenes were bright and colorful.
What I found striking was how mature these children have become for their age. Even a 4-year-old boy, who is from Homs, told me in detail how his relatives had moved away one by one.
I talked to Rafi*, 12, who was waiting to hear about the status of his family’s application to immigrate. Rafi’s family had left Hassakeh for Damascus some months earlier, but when their new neighbourhood witnessed violence, they again moved, this time to Tartous governorate.
These displaced children are receiving invaluable support, but the needs around the country are huge – and increasing.
After travelling back to Tartous city, I met a 12-year-old boy on the street. Bisher* had fled Aleppo city with his family six months earlier because of fierce fighting.
Thousands of people are living in 21 shelters in Tartous, where they receive access to a variety of additional humanitarian assistance. In addition, many thousands of people are living in the local host community.
Bisher told me that he had passed Grade 5 the previous year in Aleppo. At that time, he was able to go to school, as his father drove a taxi and was able to make a living. When they were displaced, Bisher and his older brother decided to support their father. They started collecting plastic bottles for sale, having seen other children do so in Aleppo. “My friends are still in Aleppo,” Bisher told me. “There, you hear all the time sounds of fighting.”
Experiencing conflict and being displaced can have serious effects on children’s well-being, but I was impressed with the child-focused activities I saw in rural Tartous and also the resilience of children I met.
Bisher had big hopes for the coming year. “I wish to be able to go this year to school,” he said, with a big smile.
*Names have been changed.