Francesco Paganini (center), UMCOR’s International Disaster Response executive, with Syrian Children in a Child-Friendly Space at a refugee camp in Kilis, Turkey. The Child-Friendly Space is made possible by International Blue Crescent with funding from UMCOR.
By David Tereshchuk *
December 12, 2013—International aid agencies are now basing their work on the grim prediction that refugees from Syria seeking shelter in neighboring countries will come to total three million by the end of this year.
An estimated one million uprooted Syrians already have taken refuge in Turkey. A few miles from that country’s southern border with Syria, the city of Kilis, with a normal population of just 88,000, has swelled to encompass an additional refugee community of more than 70,000.
Many of the displaced have managed to find homes using their own resources, but an increasing number cannot afford to do so. This vulnerable population increasingly must rely on official provision, such as the state-provided Reception Center in Kilis, a refugee camp.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is focusing its attention on the most vulnerable members of this camp population: children. The program UMCOR is supporting provides refugee children in the camp opportunities to play and interact, “to be a child, even in these difficult situations,” said Francesco Paganini, UMCOR executive for International Disaster Response, after a recent visit. “Our support is essential for the children to have access to the care and help they need.”
At the core of this care and help, implemented on the ground by UMCOR’s Turkey-based partner, International Blue Crescent (IBC) is what is known as “Child-Friendly Spaces” or CFS. Conceived as a combination of informal schooling along with emotional and psychological comfort, CFS allows caregivers to regularly monitor the physical and mental well-being of the children and provides a holistic response to their needs.
One perhaps small but telling part of the support is that UMCOR’s assistance ensures that the children get to enjoy daytime snacks, bringing some variety to the two regular meals per day that IBC supplies.
Many of the children have suffered shocking events amid the horror of war that overtook their homes and neighborhoods. In Kilis, Paganini recalled feeling moved by “the children’s ability to respond with resilience in the wake of trauma you and I would have a hard time imagining. I would end up—when the boisterous singing and laughing made it almost impossible to hear any adult conversation—feeling sad and yet able to smile at the same time,” he said.
Paganini praised the partnership with IBC, indicating that the two organizations have worked together in response to emergencies from Mali and Somalia to Pakistan. Given this experience, he said, UMCOR knows “we can rely on a partner who is well-established in the operational area. They have excellent connections and relationships locally, and their work is completely in line with international standards. They give us the ability to reach out and alleviate suffering in places where UMCOR may not traditionally work.”
As the flow of Syrians uprooted from their homes continues unabated, it is sadly clear that major assistance to refugees in neighboring countries like Turkey will continue to be needed well into the foreseeable future.
“We were at first envisaging a facility that coped with 400 children in Kilis. This has already grown to more than 600, and is rapidly approaching 700,” Paganini pointed out. UMCOR is actively considering extending the much-needed Child-Friendly Spaces program in both time and scope.
Paganini reflected on the all-too-common danger of dwindling global interest. “There can be a tendency to forget human tragedies on the international scene,” he said. “We at UMCOR are intent on not forgetting this population.”
Your gift to International Disaster Response, Advance #982450, will help children and families, including Syria’s refugees, who are uprooted by natural or human-made disasters.
* David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org.