Children of the desert

20 July 2009

The children from al-Tanf camp in search of their future

Children of the desertAli likes drawing - everything. Trees and flowers, houses with happy families inside, gifts for Eiyad (Islamic celebrations), children playing in colorful parks. He does not draw from life. Al-Tanf is a camp devoid of greenery and gifts. "I’d like to live like any other kid in the world," Ali says while staring absently at the wall that separates the camp from the desert just a few metres from his family’s tent.

Drawing is one of the few activities available for children in al-Tanf. Established in the no-man’s land within the border zone between Iraq and Syria, al-Tanf camp became a home for almost 850 Palestine refugees after they fled increasing violence and death threats in Iraq. Around 40 per cent of the refugees are children and youth, refused entry to Syria and unable to go back to Baghdad.

The drawings by children in al-Tanf are more than a simple recreational activity. "Drawing is particularly important in work with children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder," explains Ruba Al-Saddi, UNICEF psychologist at al-Tanf. "Drawing is easier than speaking. Looking at the picture of an al Tanf child we can better understand their experience. What was inside a child, it now goes outside."

According to the UNRWA report on Palestinian Iraqi refugee children and youth, the youngest residents of al-Tanf camp are a particularly vulnerable group on the ground. Many of them suffer from unresolved psychological problems due to witnessing the killing of family members, enduring poverty, uncertain legal status, isolation and a lack of recreational activities.

To help the youngest residents of al-Tanf deal with their frustration, three United Nations agencies in Syria – UNHCR, UNRWA and UNICEF – work together to provide basic services and facilities, such as a school, a kindergarten and nursery, teachers, and learning materials. Moreover, UNRWA and UNICEF cooperate closely to assure psycho-social assistance in order to cope with the children’s trauma. However, limited financial and human resources mean the difficulties faced by the youngest remain urgent. In a place where almost every resident faces several unresolved psychological problems, the treatment of the youngest requires special attention.

In the extreme conditions of the camp, amongst the trucks rushing between Damascus and Baghdad, the youngest residents of al-Tanf still require considerable efforts to be fully understood. "Without specialised assistance, it is far more difficult to fully discover the world’s perception of a traumatised child," al-Saddi says.

Text and photos by Pawel Krzysiek

Two UNRWA students from Gaza enjoy recess in their first day of school. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Rushdi Al-Saraj
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