A safe space to play in the desert

While in Jordan we visited two refugee camps and some community-based organisations in Amman and Zarqa. Within the population of 9.7 million, about 1.2 million are refugees, only 671,919 are registered and 80% of these refugees are living outside the camps. The two camps we visited are for Syrian refugees fleeing from the Syrian crisis that started in March 2011.

It’s hard to explain the vastness of the camps but when you’re stood looking across the desert, into the distance and you can’t see the end of the camp, you know it’s big!

Za’atari camp is 5.3 km2 with 78,417 refugees living there. Twenty per cent are under the age of five, with an average of 80 births a week. It is estimated that 461,701 refugees have passed through the camp since it opened on the 28 July 2012.

Azraq camp opened later in 2014 and is 14.7 km2 with 40,526 Syrian refugees, nearly 22% of whom are under the age of five. All these children being born in the camp have never seen life outside of the camp!

School doesn’t start until the age of six, so there is no nursery/kindergarten education. Thanks to the IKEA Foundation and the funding they give to War Child, they are able to run Early Childhood Care Development programmes (ECCD), both in the camps and the communities within Jordan for children aged four to six.

These aim to give children safe places to play, child friendly activities and basic learning. Although the rest of this blog will be about the ECCD programmes, you should know that the War Child programmes don’t just focus on young children’s needs to play and learn. They also protect Syrian and Jordanian children from abuse, child labour exploitation, violence and early marriage. They provide structured psychosocial support to children, youths (aged 14-17) and parents, including parenting skills. The whole family and community benefits from War Child’s programmes and the IKEA Foundation’s support.

What have these children been through? What have they seen? Where do they play? What do they learn? Where do they live? These are just some of the questions I had about the young children before I went to Jordan.

My journey in Za’atari camp

When we drove through the security entrance of the camp, it was like an open-air border control and my immediate reaction was “this is not a place for a child to play, learn and grow up”. It’s a dusty desert with huge ditches around the edge of the camp, dusty uneven paths between caravans for houses, each with a water tank attached.

Actually, this camp was established seven years ago. When the Syrians first arrived they had tents and very limited amenities.

We drove straight to the War Child centre and, as you turned the corner, it was like a rainbow of colours inside a fenced area. The four caravans were painted with coloured pictures by Syrian artists and children. The tyres that lined the edge of the covered play area were painted bright colours and there was a patch of green that represented a small grass area, also covered for protection from the burning sun. It was clean and bright with the sound of happy children playing in secure safe place.

As we entered through the guarded gate, the children greeted us with beaming smiles and sounds of joy, just as you would see in a park at home. The children gathered together to sing songs on the grass-like area. One child, in the most beautiful dress, was picked to go in the middle and she seemed to know all the words and actions. We tried to sing along but, not being fluent in Arabic, it was more like humming along.

They then split into groups and some children continued to enjoy themselves in the play area on the swings, climbing frame and see-saw.

The others joined their teacher in one of the painted caravans.

Their teacher is a refugee living in the camp and used to teach back home in Syria. Since fleeing from Syria, he has married and has had children himself.

The iron cabin inside was set up just a nursery would be in the UK. There was a brightly coloured carpet area with a whiteboard, where the main teacher-led learnings take place. The children were learning how to count using different toys and objects and touching them as they counted. Then the rest of the caravan was split into corners of learning through play. A play kitchen, reading corner, science and games. All these corners of play-based learning help the children with basic numbers and letter skills, depending on what they are learning that day, but they also improve their social and emotional behaviours as they begin to interact with each other.

It is often the case that because parents and older siblings are distressed and traumatised from what they have experienced from the conflict back home, and having to adapt to the camp life, it can lead to neglect of young children, and of this age in particular. The Early Childhood Care and Development programme is preparing children for school.

These children never having seen the outside of the desert camp. It seems hard to comprehend that they have never seen certain trees, animals or large amounts of water, like a pond with ducks, or a lake surrounded by woodland or the sea! Something that we take for granted.

Before leaving the younger children to visit the youths on the War Child programme, the last activity we joined in with was a physical sporting race, where the children were encouraged to cheer for their friends. The sounds of clapping and shouting will stay with us all just as if it were a school sports day here in the UK.

The similarities in the War Child centres to school and nursery in the UK shows what a fantastic programme War Child have set up to ensure as many children as possible have a safe place to play and learn. I have the utmost admiration for the War Child facilitators and programme leaders as they deliver a comprehensive programme with such positivity and hope. A quote from the leaders themselves: “It’s not a job it’s a way of life.”

I felt very humbled when they thanked us for the support of the IKEA Foundation as they couldn’t achieve the success they do without that support. It makes you feel very proud to work for IKEA when you see happy smiling faces of children who are affected by war.