CANADEM’s European Refugee Crisis Response

Stories from the field: Child Protection in Emergencies Specialist in Croatia

Since 2015, the European refugee crisis has impacted hundred of thousands of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The difficulties of crossing borders and travelling across seas are intensified for children, particularly those who are unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Elaine Bainard, a CANADEM associate, was deployed to Slavonski Brod, Croatia with UNICEF as a Child Protection in Emergencies Specialist from March to June 2016.

Please find below a story from Elaine regarding her time in Croatia.

Two boys with the UNICEF staff: they are eagerly waiting for the program to start!

Two boys with the UNICEF staff: they are eagerly waiting for the program to start!

*All names have been changed.

After a decade of international aid work, I have seen human desperation caused by earthquakes, typhoons, epidemics and war, and have seen some of the best, and the worst and the mediocre that the world had to offer in response. But just when I least expected it, I see a little child trying to crawl under a fence and this global news story of hundreds of thousands of people trying to get to Germany takes on a new meaning. The reality facing desperate people on the move becomes more vivid.

In the mass movement of people out of war torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, escaping from year after endless year of bombings, fighting, insecurity with no end in sight, the country of Croatia has assisted over 659,000 people, with 40 percent of them children, as they moved through the Balkans trying to reach the promised land of Western Europe. When winter came, Croatia did a humane thing and put the people on buses and trains and moved them free of charge across the country, with a quick stop over in Slavonski Brod to get essential humanitarian assistance. But in March of 2016, the borders started to close along the route as countries became overwhelmed with the flood of humanity. Croatia closed her borders as well, stranding people inside the country.  Agencies, including UNICEF, had been involved early, trying to help children get warm clothing, nutritious food, diapers, medical care, and a safe space to rest and play.  Four babies were born here. While they were moving rapidly through the country, there was little chance of learning their stories, but once these people were stranded, there was plenty of time at the Slavonski Brod camp to get to know them.

Abdullah is a single father to 5 year old Yusep from Iraq. His wife died a few years ago and it’s just him and Yusep left, and he wants a safer, better future for his son. Yusep doesn’t have the words to express himself, but every drawing he makes depicts people he knew full of bullet holes and bleeding. Despite carrying around these horrible images, Yusep is a sweet boy who came to every single session of the Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) program that UNICEF supported in the Slavonski Brod camp and there he has relaxed, made friends and started to learn.

One of my jobs was to assist the local staff working in the Child Friendly Space, to make sure the program had a therapeutic schedule of structured games, activities and learning opportunities that would support children to regain normality, express themselves, and learn new life skills to help them in their new environments. Children got exercise, learned English and Croatian, drew pictures, played games and sports, made friends, and perhaps most importantly, had a safe place to go where kind and supportive adults made sure that they had what they needed. The CFS was open every day, mornings and afternoons, and every child was welcomed.

Miriam is travelling alone with her two sons, 2 year old Ishmael and 1 year old Farshad, trying to reach her brother in Germany. She’s from a small village in Syria. She never went to school, is barely out of childhood herself, and she is overwhelmed. In early April, she learned that her village in Syria was bombed, her uncle and her niece are dead, her sister is in critical condition in hospital and her husband is missing. Getting information from Syria is difficult and she’s not sleeping very well in her grief. Ishmael and Farshad are adorable children, constantly on the move and they don’t like her to be out of sight for very long. At that age, `no` in any language doesn’t work very well.  The Child Friendly Space program recognized early that this mom and her children needed support, so they were always welcome. Miriam and other mothers would come to the program during the children’s English lessons so that they too could learn. Miriam would leave the boys with the CFS staff so she could clean their little living space, take a shower or just rest, or cry.

Nuri is a 3 year old boy from the ISIS controlled region of Syria. Before being at the Slavonski Brod camp, he had never played outside before and had spent most of his young life inside the house watching TV. His parents explained that it wasn’t safe to go outside. The developmental lags are clearly visible and he doesn’t interact with other children. Or rather, he didn’t before attending the Child Friendly Space program. Here, he initially didn’t seem to have any idea what to do with the toys, but with support and individual attention, eventually he would seek out a ball and engage in endless games of catch with whoever would play with him, or he played with building blocks, creating towers that he could knock over. Slowly, he was willing to interact with other children. Nuri has a long way to go and needs to be in a regular kindergarten program as soon as possible, but his family is trapped here in Croatia. Not wanting to apply for asylum here, wanting to reach relatives in Sweden, their fate is uncertain.

I was walking across the camp in one of its final days of operation, just before people were transferred to better facilities, and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted little Ishmael over at a fence. The ground had eroded in that spot, creating a bit of a gully and a place where a two year old could crawl under the fence. A police officer on the other side of the fence was helplessly trying to tell this two year old not to crawl under the fence. Ishmael was having no part of listening, even if he could understand the language, which he couldn’t.  It hit me in a new way at that moment, here we have a child who cannot understand that he and his family are stuck, who in his playful exploration of his world was trying to escape under the fence that was put there to keep him inside. This is so much like the situation for many of the tens of thousands of people trapped along the Balkans route, and in Greece; fenced in, powerless, and wanting out.

`Yusep` drawing

`Yusep` drawing

Ishmael is just one of thousands of children detained across Europe as governments try to stop the movement of people across their territory, of people who are desperate to escape bombing and war and tyranny and hopeless futures. The police officer, helpless against a two year old, is as helpless to stop the flood of people on the move. He isn’t a bad police officer, he wasn’t unkind to the child. I’m sure he would have been happy to help the child to a better life.  Just now, it seems like the world doesn’t know how to make that happen. So we continue to do what we can to help restore some piece of childhood for these children and we wait.