By Ansar Rasheed
ADEN, Yemen, 30 January 2012 – The voice of Miryam Mohammed, a 10-year-old Somali girl, echoed around the small rooms of her day care centre. She and the other children are singing the Somali national anthem.
“The song is about my home land that I have never seen,” she explained. “I was born here in Yemen, but maybe one day I will go there.”
The day care center, held in the home of a local volunteer, is one of 15 in Basateen, a slum where thousands of Somali refugees and Yeminis of Somali origin live. It hosts 30 to 40 children whose mothers leave from dawn until early evening to work as maids or beggars.
Stark conditions for refugee children
Each year, tens of thousands of Somalis make the treacherous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, escaping the ongoing civil conflict in their home country. And the trend is growing: According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), a record 103,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants made the journey across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea in 2011, a 100 per cent increase over the previous year.
Yet the situation for children in Yemen is also stark. The country has one of the highest rates of death among children under age five in the region, and the world’s second highest rate of stunting among children in this age group, as well.
And without the stability offered by family or community networks, refugee children here are especially vulnerable.
Care for vulnerable children
UNICEF is working closely with UNHCR to assist these children, particularly on education, health and protection issues. UNICEF is also helping refugee communities manage severe acute malnutrition and encourages pre-school activities for young children.
The day care centers in Basateen are part of these efforts, organized by partner NGO Al-Tadamoun. The centres offer enriching activities targeted to children’s ages. Those between ages 1 and 4 receive supervised play time with toys; those between ages 4 and 6 spend time learning to use pens and drawing; and children between 6 and 14 receive a basic education covering the English, Arabic and music. The children are also provided with school uniforms and bags, as well as some extra-curricular activities.
“I get paid 100 rials [approximately US$0.44] for each child per day whilst their mothers work,” said Saida Mubarak Atta, the owner of the building where one such day care center is located. “If the mothers can’t afford it, I often just look after their children for free."
Safe and educated
The day care centres are growing more important in southern Yemen’s Somali communities as women increasingly become providers for their families.
“My mum works as a maid,” said 6-year-old Omar. “My dad sometimes washes cars, but it is mum who brings us money and food.”
He faced terrible conditions at home before he began coming to day care.
“My mother used to tie me next to the bed for long hours, just like a dog, so that I would not play with fire or electricity. That was awful, but this is better,” he said. “Here I can play with my friends, I get good food, and they teach us with song and toys.”
“The day care centers in Basateen provide secure, healthy and educational environment for nearly 500 children who would otherwise be begging with their mothers on the streets, or left unattended at home exposed to various dangers,” said Noor Hirssi, a caregiver in Basateen.
With UNICEF support, caregivers receive training on child protection issues, how to care for children according to their ages, and teaching children through play.
“This support has enhanced the role of the day care centers,” Ms. Hirssi said. “The children are not simply accommodated; they are safe here, and they are being educated.”