“We don’t see the emotional needs”: Caring for Young Children in Refugee Camps

Kakuma - Photo Credit Dr. Grace Jepkemboi

Kakuma – Photo Credit Dr. Rose Rutto-Korir

The world’s refugee crisis is not getting any smaller. In 2013, there were 10.4 million people around the world with the designation “of concern to the UNHCR” – a group of people usually known as refugees, in addition 4.8 million people in the Middle East were cared for by the UNRWA. As always these numbers can fluctuate heavily, dependent on ceasefires or the outbreak of new violence. According to the UNHCR about 50% of the world’s forcibly displaced people are children, how many of them are under the age of 5 remains unknown.

In 2012 – The World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP), became part of the migration group/network at the UN and soon realised that the education and emotional well-being of pre-school children in refugee camps around the world was not an overall priority. While key necessities such as food, health and sanitation are all part of the major international organizations’ work in refugee camps and older kids had access to different kinds of education in the camps, not a single organization was working on the emotional health of pre-school children, i.e. age 0-5 in refugee camps around the world. As Dr. Grace Jepkemboi expressed it, “we don’t see the emotional needs of these children” – even if we are aware that experiences in early childhood have a major impact on children’s long-term cognitive, emotional and physiological development. This insight led to the development of two projects: the ZIP and the KIP – i.e. the Za’atari intervention project in Jordan and the Kenya intervention project at Kakuma Refugee Camp. The two projects are running concurrently, and both are in the initial/pre-trial phase.

Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan is one of the largest and fastest growing refugee camps in the world – it houses around 120,000 refugees fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria – it is now considered the third largest city in Jordan. In addition, Jordan is hosting around 1.2 million people fleeing the conflict in Syria, most of whom are not living in camp settings but in urban settings around the country.

Kakuma was created in 1992 originally to help Sudanese refugees fleeing the conflict in the Sudan, however, since then its location in the North Eastern corner of Kenya has made it the refuge of people fleeing famine and violence in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC, Uganda, Somalia, and Eritrea. Currently, the majority population is Sudanese, who are now returning to the camp after having gone back to South Sudan last fall because of new tensions and increased violence. There are an estimated 140,000 people currently in the camp.

The Migrationist recently had the pleasure of speaking to Dr Grace Jepkemboi, Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and lead researcher/project manager of the KIP project, about the challenges of implementing early childhood programs in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

There are two parts to the project; first and foremost the intervention itself aims to address the emotional well-being of children ages birth to 5 living in refugee camps through a “volunteer tool kit”. Secondly, the project also aims to achieve this based on sound scientific evidence, as the OMEP team involved in the project quickly realised that few attempts have been made to test the effects of interventions in refugee camps around the world. Thus both the project in Za’atari and in Kakuma will start with a pre-test, then the intervention, i.e. the volunteer tool kit that has been developed specifically for the project and then a post-test, to see the effects of the treatment. If the intervention is successful in strengthening the emotional health of the children and change the behaviour of the care takers, whether parents, family or professionals, the long term goal will be for the tool kit to be adapted and used in refugee camps around the world.

Throughout the development of the project, it has been of primary importance  for  the team to ensure that the materials in the volunteer tool kits are culturally appropriate and sensitive to the needs of the communities using them. Thus, the original tool kit was developed by early childhood specialists and included activities such as drama, music, dance, visual art, folk lore and children’s stories, puppets and songs – all of which have subsequently been modified to take into account the specific cultural background of the children in the Za’atari camp, most of whom are Syrians and the children in Kakuma, whose background is a lot more varied as the camp has existed since 1992. The Kakuma camp has hosted a number of different nationalities, such as Somalis, Ugandans, Sudanese and Congolese during its creation 22 years ago, furthermore, although a proportion of the inhabitants share a nationality a great variety of ethnic and religious groups are represented as well. Consequently, the tool kits has been modified to take into account the cultural, linguistic and religious background of the children, this has been done with input from local volunteers  as well as translations into a multitude of languages.

Creating, funding and implementing programs in refugee camps in two different parts of the world remains a major challenge for several organizations, including OMEP – an organization that is not a major development or emergency aid organization and has not previously worked in refugee camps. Particularly, the access and logistics of refugee work has taken the team by surprise and been one of the biggest hurdles to overcome.

Kakuma - Photo Credit Dr Grace Jepkemboi

Kakuma – Photo Credit Dr. Rose Rutto-Korir

“Originally, the Kenya project was meant to take place in the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya. We did manage to go there for the initial meeting but we were not allowed to leave the airport while we were there because of the security situation. Because of this we had to move the project to Kakuma camp instead as access just wasn’t possible. When we left Dadaab I couldn’t help thinking about all the children we were leaving behind”. Grace says, obviously still thinking about the experience.

Furthermore, getting access to both Za’atari and Kakuma has been a major challenge for the team, as you need to get permission from a large number of people, including camp management, local authorities and government officials. Volunteers in Za’atari have had difficulty gaining access to the camp. . In Za’atari a mix of local volunteers in the camp as well as university students from Yarmouk university are being trained to use the tool kit in the camp. Along with the struggle for access also comes the struggle for funding.

“Many donors and funding bodies are focused on tangible and measurable forms of aid, such as housing, food and water, sanitation, and medical help; trauma and mental health issues are obviously much less visible but will have a huge impact on the lives of these children both now and in the future.” Dr Grace explains. This is also one of the reasons the program is design with research and evidence in mind, as actually being able to show donors that the tool kits are working would be extremely valuable.

“We began almost two years ago, but have had several setbacks.”  The major difference between Za’atari and Kakuma is the diversity of the refugees in the camps – in Za’atari almost all the refugees are Syrian, whereas in Kakuma you have a plethora of nationalities, languages and ethnicities and the tool kit needs to cater to all of them, while remaining culturally appropriate. This also means translating the tool kit into a whole host of languages.

Asked about the future of the project, Dr Grace is very optimistic:

“We have had expressions of interest from both the Australian asylum system; they were keen to try the tool kit in asylum centres in Australia as well as from the International Red Cross. This means that we will have data from three different continents as well as seen how it works in three different contexts and how the tool kit can be adapted to vary different situations.”

Hopefully, the emotional needs of pre-school children in refugee camps may not remain invisible for much longer.

For more information about the project and updates about its progress check out http://www.worldomep.org/en/zaatari/ – which will be updated shortly. 

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