Safe Learning Spaces: Providing a Haven for Palestine Refugee Children in Syria to Learn and Play

04 August 2017
Safe learning space, Damascus, Syria. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Taghrid Mohammad

“When the fighting increased and the sound of explosions filled the silence of the ghost town that Yarmouk became, we decided it was time to leave,” recalls Abir, a mother of two. Sitting in the back of the safe learning space in the Damascus Training Centre, she quietly observes her two children’s interaction in the classroom. “There was a lot of shooting and bombs; it was terrible,” she adds. “We no longer felt safe; our children were at risk. We had no choice but to leave.”

Abir, 37, is one of 254,000 Palestine refugees who had to flee the violence in different cities and gatherings across Syria. Originally from Yarmouk, the young mother, her husband and their two children arrived at the collective shelter at the Damascus Training Centre five year ago, leaving behind everything they owned. 

“When we left, my biggest concern was my children’s education. Therefore, I immediately enrolled Zeina, 13, and Mohammad, 11, in one of the UNRWA schools in Damascus. I strongly believe that an uneducated child has no future and no hope,” she explains. 

Children residing in collective shelters such as the Damascus Training Centre have been taken away from their normal lives. Some of them have lost family members and friends and are far away from their schools or unable to access regular education. To give Palestine refugee children the support they need to continue their education, even during crises, UNRWA has established the Education in Emergencies (EiE) programme. The Government of Belgium has contributed EUR 5 million to the UNRWA EiE Programme, which supports the EiE response in Syria.

In the war-torn country, the Agency has set up eight safe learning spaces and 22 recreational playgrounds in communities and shelters. These safe spaces provide children with a protected environment to continue with their learning and engage in recreational activities, building their social skills and contributing to their overall well-being and resilience.

Abir describes how the UNRWA approach has helped her children: “I have noticed a great level of improvement in Zeina’s behaviour and well-being. When we first arrived, she was isolated and refused to interact with other children. She also had violent and aggressive reactions towards people; she was completely traumatized. Then, with the help of the psychosocial support counsellors at the UNRWA schools and in the safe learning spaces and after attending some psychosocial support sessions and recreational activities, she started engaging with others, smiling and succeeding in school.”

She also discusses the importance of the safe learning spaces and encourages parents to enrol their children. “Children can benefit from the English, Arabic, French and mathematics courses. These courses will help them prepare for the upcoming school year with full confidence. The teachers are very supportive and they provide close follow-up for each student. They invite us to awareness sessions where they give updates on the improvements made by the children and inform us if they have concerns.”

The young mother expresses her happiness that Mohammad and Zeina are now comfortable and have made new friends: “This is the closest I can offer them to a normal life, I’m very grateful.

Background

UNRWA Education in Emergencies (EiE) approach seeks to combine the strengths of the education system, and the work on the Agency- wide reform, with innovative new ways of delivering and supporting education. UNRWA adopts a multi-stranded, integrated and innovative approach to EiE, targeting the key dimensions described below, including safe learning and recreational spaces, interactive self-learning materials, learning support activities, and safety and security training. Through this EiE approach, UNRWA helps to ensure that Palestine refugee children can continue to access  quality education and learning opportunities, even in times of crisis and conflict. The EiE approach is renowned in the region, and beyond, with Host Countries, as well as other UN agencies, replicating its approaches and utilizing the specific resources developed.

The key dimensions of the UNRWA approach to EiE are:
  • Safe and secure learning environments, which address both the physical and emotional needs of children. The capacity of education personnel and communities is also being built to respond to insecurity, provide safe learning spaces and psychosocial support to help students deal with trauma and support their recovery.
  • Quality teaching and learning, including the provision of alternative learning modalities such as self-learning materials, an interactive learning programme and UNRWA TV episodes, and the professional development of teachers on these modalities and resources.
  • Student, parent and community engagement and participation, which involves identifying and mobilizing available resources within the community, as well as building consensus and support for EiE programming.
Two UNRWA students from Gaza enjoy recess in their first day of school. © 2017 UNRWA Photo by Rushdi Al-Saraj
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