14 March 2017

Open Doors partners support Syrian children as 2016 is declared deadliest year for children caught up in the war

Open Doors local partners are bringing hope to children in Syria as Unicef declares 2016 the deadliest year yet for children caught up in the conflict. The UN estimates that 5.8 million children are in need inside Syria with some 281,000 living under siege and 2.8 million trapped in hard to reach areas. Open Doors is working through partners on the ground to keep hope alive for these children as part of the Open Doors Hope for the Middle East campaign.

Six years ago this week anti-government protests started within Syria that escalated, resulting in the current conflict. As war tears apart families and ravages lives in Syria, children are receiving help at special Child Friendly Spaces supported by Open Doors. These spaces are designed to provide refuge and a safe place for children to receive trauma counselling and take part in art therapy and children's activities.

These centres, funded by Open Doors supporters and run by local partner organisations, provide an oasis for children forced to grow up very prematurely because of the war and devastation around them. Many have been exposed to things that no child should ever witness.

Syrian fieldworker George* describes the child friendly space as ‘a safe space where children can develop and grow and have access to critical psychosocial support'. For about two years he has been involved in such a centre in the Homs province in Syria. Some 320 children can be children again during the days they participate in the activities of the centre.

George starts by explaining the huge impact the war has on the children he sees in his environment.. "Many children have been directly impacted by the violence, suffering from physical and psychological trauma and being forced to leave their homes. Children as young as seven are being recruited into the armed conflict, many suffer from increased levels of physical abuse at home, and young girls are at particular risk of sexual abuse, abduction, and exploitation."

According to George, many Syrian schools have been closed in this war. In 2015 some forty schools were attacked by one of the fighting factions. Many Syrian children are not going to school because of the security situation or due to lack of available places at the schools. He continues: "Very young children are being used in child labour and girls as young as eleven-years-old are being married off, sometimes in exchange for rent and other necessities."

"After a child protection assessment done in Syria in 2014 we concluded that the support to children should increase. The direct result of that was the opening of our Child Friendly Space in the province of Homs that autumn. The right to play and learn is a critical issue as many Syrian children have no access to a safe place to play and can't go to school."

The Child Friendly Space is located in an area close to Homs that is home to many displaced Syrians. Some 320 children each week find a safe space here where they can develop and grow and have access to psychosocial support. The program focuses primarily on activities for children ages three to fourteen and operates from Thursday to Sunday. "The activities are designed specifically for each specific age group to promote child development, psychosocial wellbeing, and coping skills. Activities include games, arts and crafts, music, drama, sports, free play, emergency education, and child protection awareness."

"The space acts as a protective environment for children, providing a safe physical space and reducing vulnerability to abuse," explains George. "By providing a safe place to learn and play, the space also reduces children's risk of becoming involved in child labour and early marriage or sexual exploitation, and it significantly improves children's psychosocial wellbeing as they regain a sense of routine and normalcy, and are able to process difficult experiences in a secure environment."

George is already seeing the first fruits of this space: "Playing is essential for their emotional and psychological development. Because their lack of opportunity to play, children felt isolated and stressed; this even led to an increased violence amongst them. Now they have their own space, they slowly start to feel better. The informal education they receive is essential to them as they can't go to school."

The Child Friendly Space has become unmissable for the children in Homs. But George sees an even wider benefit. "The Child Friendly Space engages members of the community, so it is also strengthening the ties between the Church and its surrounding community as they respond together to the needs of children."

Last year, Open Doors launched the Hope for the Middle East campaign, a global, seven-year campaign mobilising Christians around the world to stand with the church in the Middle East. As part of this, Open Doors is asking people to sign the One Million Voices of Hope petition, which will be presented to the UN in December 2017. The petition calls for equality, dignity and responsibility for Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq, the key things Christians and church leaders from these nations have said they want for the future.

Lisa Pearce, Chief Executive of anti-persecution charity Open Doors UK and Ireland said: Syria is number 6 on our World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Open Doors supporters in the UK and Ireland fund the work of churches and partner organisations in Syria and 60 other countries. Following requests from leaders across the region we have launched a petition calling for equality, dignity and a role in reconciliation to build a better future for Christians and other minorities in the Middle East - I'm urging everyone to sign."

Open Doors works through local churches and partners in Syria to provide relief aid, training, trauma counselling and Christian literature, amongst other projects.

*Names changed for security reasons

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Note to editors:

For more information call the Open Doors press office on 01993 777377, 01993 777346 or 07484 000 441, or email Tania at taniac@opendoorsuk.org or Beth at bethf@opendoorsuk.org

Information on Open Doors - www.opendoorsuk.org

Open Doors UK & Ireland is part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians in over 60 countries for over 60 years. Last year it raised approximately $70 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised over £11 million.

Every year Open Doors publishes the World Watch List - a ranking of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. This is produced using detailed information provided by Open Doors co-workers in more than 60 countries, as well as independent experts. Data is gathered on five spheres of life - private, family, community, national and church life- plus a sixth sphere measuring the degree of violence impacting Christians. Persecution in each country is recorded by Open Doors using a point system. Open Doors' research methods and results have been independently audited by the International Institute for Religious Freedom. The 2017 World Watch List accounts for the 12 months ending 31 October 2016.

The Open Doors World Watch List is the only instrument that measures the persecution of Christians annually. Its methodology is designed to track how the exercise of the Christian faith gets squeezed in five distinct areas - private life, family life, community life, national life and church life - as well as covering violence such as rapes, killings and church burnings. Dr. Ronald Boyd-MacMillan, Director of Research at Open Doors International, explains why: "It is possible for persecution to be so intense in all areas of life that Christians fear to witness at all. You may find very low levels of violence as a result, because incidents of violent persecution are often a response to acts of witness."