By Rebecca Fordham
BENGHAZI, Libya, 20 May 2011 – Etaj, 11, and Hanni, 12, (not their real names), are taking their drawing very seriously amid the surrounding clatter of chairs and chatter of other children.
For them, creating art at this child-friendly space is an opportunity to creatively express what they are feeling and to be with friends. “I was fed up watching the news and wanted to see my friends again,” said Etaj. “I come here every day except Sunday. I would like to go back to school.”
Healing psychological wounds
At this centre in Benghazi, which is usually a primary and secondary school for 800 children, the walls are covered with the children’s drawings and small hand-moulded animals. The boys’ shouts from the football game being played outside can be heard through the window.
“We wanted to bring the children here to give them normal life again,” said Majed Mohammed, volunteer supervisor of the community space. He says there are currently about 100 children, but more are arriving each day.
These centres are a community mobilization initiative that grew out of UNICEF and Save the Children training assessments conducted in Benghazi for community members with teaching and counselling experience.
The training assessments developed ways to relate with children who have witnessed horrific events. “We wanted to make children like learning and have fun,” said Majed El Gary, a volunteer supervisor at the centre. “We learned how to connect and speak with them in a way that was easy for children.”
There are now approximately 2,000 children attending seven centres across Benghazi. UNICEF has supplied 100 recreational and early childhood kits, including sports items like footballs and basketballs, as well as drawing materials.
“Our ultimate intention is to make children happy, you can see this in their faces,” said Osman Abu Fatima, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist. “They are playing activities, children feel welcome. Just two weeks ago there was nothing, and children were suffering from being in these situations.”
Since the fighting began in February, many children have been trapped in their homes without access to formal education. “We were worried and afraid our children would see our feelings,” said Mohammed Ahmad, a father of two girls attending the centre.
The parents feared their anxieties were affecting the children, so the community space also benefits them to feel happier and more comfortable with their children. The routine and structure the children get at the centres is also important given the uncertainty of their lives.
“They are drawing, sometimes from their minds, sometimes from watching TV. You can see the NATO flags and from the shooting,” said Mr. El Gary. “We are trying to help children be happy, to forget about the war and do new things.”
“I was scared, I saw shooting with guns. I ran home,” said Raja, 11, (not his real name), “now I am here, I feel life, I want to learn.”
Re-opening of schools
More of these child-friendly spaces are needed to provide for children. Meanwhile, UNICEF and partners are advocating for the resumption of formal education for all Libyan children, and are continuing discussions with the authorities to assess and contribute to what is needed and to ensure that children will not lose the full school year.
Until that happens, children like Etaj will continue to make use of the child-friendly spaces. Here at this centre in Benghazi, the children are singing and producing pictures at quite a pace. Etaj is just happy that she can keep coming back and build on her creations. “We don’t want to remember, but we want to be together to learn,” she said.