The stories in the news from Syria in recent weeks and months make difficult reading; it can be hard to know how to engage with a situation which seem so difficult and almost hopeless.
It is in these most difficult circumstances that Viva is partnering with three teams of young leaders who are running ‘child friendly spaces’ for vulnerable children in conflict-affected parts of Syria.
On my recent trip to Lebanon, I was privileged to spend three days giving training and helping to lead a retreat for these teams. As well as covering the basics of how to run a child friendly space (CFS), we looked at topics including how to keep children safe, how to include children with disabilities, and how to care for ourselves.
One of the best parts of the training was when a different team took a turn to share some of the games and activities they have been doing with children in their CFS. It was deeply encouraging to see the teams form friendships, share ideas together and be a support to one another.
In another session, the teams worked in groups to create a visual image to express their understanding of the purpose of a CFS, and through the three examples they presented I was reminded again of how significant this project is in the lives of children:
One group used an image of an injured person receiving critical life-saving first aid. This highlighted one of the key purposes of the child friendly spaces – to be a place where children receive support to deal with the ‘injuries’ they have received in the experiences they have been through – experiences of being forced to flee their home, losing a parent, witnessing or experiencing violence.
Through targeted psychosocial support activities, as well as simply by providing a safe place with caring and supportive adults, children can receive the help they need to be able to cope. In the longest-running CFS, evaluation through surveys with parents this year have shown that the number of children with severe emotional difficulties has more than halved.
SUPPORTING CHILDREN TO THRIVE
Two groups used the image of a plant being tended to and growing as it is cared for. This illustrates the longer term impact of the CFS and the heart of the team to see each child cared for and reaching their potential. This reality is brought to life through the many stories of individual children that the teams have to share. A girl who came to the CFS every week but wouldn’t say a word suddenly starting to talk after many months. A boy with physical disabilities is now being supported to be included in all activities.
A PLACE OF HOPE IN A HOPELESS PLACE
The last group presented the CFS as an oasis in a desert, a source of refreshment in a place where there is no water. This metaphor powerfully represents the reality I see in the work these teams are doing – providing vital and life-giving support in a desperate situation.
One of the CFS projects is located in a very insecure area, frequently under bombardment; one of the team there told me about how you can get used to living with the very real reality that you might die that day. In this location, the CFS is located in the basement of the church where the team are members – and fittingly, this basement is the safest place in the town, also used as a shelter during bombardments. Just like its location, the CFS is providing a safe place of sanctuary for children in the most insecure times.
Throughout the time together we also spent time looking at the Beatitudes, day by day creating a picture together as we thought about each one of Jesus’ statements. When we talked about Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:9, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,’ it was a moving discussion as the teams talked about the need for real and lasting peace, and for the conflict to stop. In some ways, this seemed like an impossible dream, where the reality seems to be things getting worse rather than better.
But we also talked about the other ways that peace can appear and grow, from within and from underneath, inside us and between people, springing up in surprising and unexpected ways. As I looked at the CFS leaders, I was deeply convicted that in fact they are peacemakers – every activity planned, every kind word, every moment of encouragement to these children, is a moment of peace.
And so, when I am overwhelmed, as I am almost daily by the news I read, I call to mind the determined compassion of these young leaders, and what God is doing in them and through them to build peace and make a difference to some of the most at-risk children.
When asked about his hopes for the CFS, one of the team said, “I wish that the children we’re working with will be in a better place and the war will end. I hope that the love and care we invest in these children will be like a seed and it will grow with them so that there will be something better for the whole world.”
Blessed are the peacemakers.