STEP has provided Child Protection Services through the Child Friendly Space inside the Arbat Refugee camp since 2013. We have provided age-specific child protection services and psychosocial activities for children in the Little Friendly Space (3-5 years), Child Friendly Space (6-12 years) and the Youth Friendly Space (13-18 years). Recently the focus has shifted to children aged 3-5, and the Child Protection Unit in light of the crucial importance of a positive early years learning environment and the continuing need for child protection services.
The Arbat Syrian Refugee camp, in the Kurdish region of Iraq near Suliemany, is home to more than 4,400 minors, from 0-17 years of age. Many of the children have only known displacement and conflict and have grown up in the refugee camp.
The impact of trauma, displacement, and loss still deeply effects families and the community. Children continue to require care and protection, as well as psychosocial and educational support.
The Arbat Refugee camp was established in 2013, and STEP was invited by UNICEF to establish a Child Friendly Space at the camp. During these first tumultuous years STEP established five distinct lines of work at the camp; the Little Friendly Space (LFS) for 3-5 year olds, a Child Friendly Space (CFS) for 6-12 year olds, a Youth Friendly Space (YFS) for 13-18 year olds and lastly a Special Needs Unit. Weaved through all of the work, the Child Protection Unit (CPU) served the needs of children, youth and their families. Despite the withdrawal of UNICEF from the work of the camp in 2018, STEP has continued to provide services despite significant funding challenges.
As with so many others, 2020 has been a challenging year due to Covid-19, but STEP staff determinedly explored ways to continue to work with the children and youth of the refugee camp, a true reflection of their great flexibility and passion. The Child Friendly Space was shut physically for a period of 6 months, but the work continued despite this.
STEP staff resident in the camp worked with small groups of children in their own homes and gave out hundreds of pamphlets, full of creative ideas and suggestions, to encourage families to learn and play together at home, especially during the difficult lockdown period. English lessons took on a life of their own as children of all ages gathered virtually to laugh and to learn. STEP's senior Social Worker, also a camp resident, continued to walk the streets facilitating opportune outdoor meetings with the children and families needing his care. Phone calls were made, and messages sent. The source of hope and life that STEPs work brings into the lives of the children who come regularly into our space continued to flow virtually and relationally. A new creative energy was determination was found, allowing the many obstacles that COVID threw up to be overcome.
Happily, the CFS was reopened in September. Since then, STEP has been receiving as many children as possible as has been safe to do. The LFS continues to receive regular ‘bubbles’ of children, albeit with much smaller numbers and the CPU is once again formally working. This safe space is a haven for so many of the children living in the camp, but particularly for those under the professional care of our Child Protection team. COVID has only increased the need and demand for our CPU services, a timely reminder of how vitally important this work is.
Hundreds of children have poured through this friendly space, it has been a hub of fun, play based activities. STEP's staff have poured creativity and passion into their daily work – with the result that we have always been oversubscribed.
With the Covid-19 restrictions, our staff have provided a vital lifeline by walking around the camp - meeting parents, children - keeping the community link alive. Bored families have enthusiastically received the educational leaflets, participating in fun and purposeful activities in their own homes - STEP has come to them.
The Child Protection Unit has supported families that are facing enormous challenges, those that are most vulnerable, most in need. The professionalism and dedication of our staff here have had a profound impact on the lives of these people, while the numbers are overwhelming – somehow, our staff have managed to keep this vital service going for many years. It is impossible to measure that impact on the wider community. However, it is clear that without this service so many people would have been in a much tougher situation.
Looking into the future, STEP aims to continue our work with preschool aged children. The benefits of a good early start for children, both educationally and psychosocially, is beyond dispute. STEP wants to work directly with the children to give them that 'head-start' but we also want to support and work with the parents and families of these children by helping them to recognise their children's needs and how best to meet them.
In continuing our Child Protection work, STEP wants to develop it to better meet the needs of the children and the families resident in the camp. Recognising that education is particularly challenging in the context of a refugee camp, the current situation where schools remain closed due to Covid-19 restrictions increases the severity of the problem. STEP aims to develop better educational support, especially for those children who are struggling.
STEP's intention is to maintain our present level of support given by our CPU to the children with additional needs, but our dream is to meet the educational and psychosocial needs of these children more regularly and sustainably.
Having surveyed and listened to the voices of our youth in the camp and heard their desire to engage in livelihood programmes, business orientated English lessons and practical computer skills will help them in further education or future job prospects. Some want learning opportunities through apprenticeship schemes. STEP wants to seriously engage with the heart felt needs of these young people, recognising the particular urgency of getting this right now - for their future.
STEP intends to make the CFS and our YFS premises available to the refugee community to facilitate the growth of community led clubs. There is a wealth of expertise, gifting, and passion amongst the wider, adult community of the camp. STEP hopes to encourage and partner in an organic growing of clubs which will benefit not only the children who attend but also the volunteers who will give of their time and skill sets. Recognising that the camp is moving into a new season, moving beyond providing answers for emergency needs; the questions concerning longer term needs are being wrestled with to find realistic, achievable, and sustainable answers. STEP wants to do all it can to engage with the refugee community in this process.
The Drop-In Centre provides a safe space for children. It was started in 2002 specifically to meet the needs of working boys who had nowhere to rest in the market.
STEP is working in partnership with the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs to develop a foster care system in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.