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Child friendly spaces make South Sudan refugee children in Uganda forget their sorrows

By Catherine Ntabadde Makumbi, UNICEF Uganda

Jacqueline Abia (not real names), is a 16 years old who is manning the goal during a football game at Nyumanzi Transit Centre in Adjumani District, West Nile. She is experiencing double tragedy, having lost both her parents and now a refugee in Uganda.

Dressed in a dark navy blue skirt and a cream blouse, Abia directs her team on how to play to ensure the opponent side does not score. Unfortunately, after 20 minutes of the game, the opponents score a goal despite Abia diving to save the ball from entering the net.

“When I play football, I forget about my worries. I interact with other children and we play,” Abia who is from South Sudan says when interviewed at a child friendly space set up by UNICEF Uganda through Save the Children. About 164 children play at this Child Friendly Space (CFS) established with funding from UKAID and CERF. UNICEF utilises the child friendly spaces to give hope and new life to the refugee children aged from 0-18 years. They play games which act as a form of therapy.

Interestingly, Abia spends most of her free time playing football. Abia saw her neighbours running and she followed them up to Uganda. At Nyumazi, which has a population of 3,538 refugees who are in transit, Abia was registered as unaccompanied minor. She has not yet joined school since her arrival in July 2016 but she wants to be a doctor. Abia and other refugees are yet to be transferred to a permanent settlement where she can access education and many other services.

The Government of Uganda through Office of Prime Minister and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are coordinating this massive refugee response. Phiona Mesiku, Save the Children manager of the CSF and ECD centre at Pagirinya said all the refugee children like the child friendly space a lot and they play from Monday-Sunday up to 5:30pm. Some would even miss their lunch. Apart from provision of child friendly space services, UNICEF Uganda continues to provide humanitarian assistance to the South Sudanese refugees in the areas of health, immunisation, nutrition, water and sanitation, child protection, education as well as HIV and AIDs. All this has been made possible with support from UKAID and CERF.

According to Peace Lamunu, a Save the Children community based mobiliser in Nyumanzi, they currently register about 2 unaccompanied and separated children. During a heavy influx, they register as many as 300 children in a day. “Most of the children we receive do not have contacts with their parents. Only two out of eleven were successfully reunited in the month of September 2016,” Lamunu said. As of December 2016, UNICEF with UKAID and CERF support had provided child protection services to 48,973 refugee children. 12,012 unaccompanied or separated children received family tracing and re-unification support and placement in interim foster care.

At the Nyumanzi CFS, one can see children playing games like swinging, racing using car tyres, volley ball and sand. During the visit, a UNICEF team interfaces with Stella Anyanzo (not real names), 16 who also loves football. Anyanzo likes football because it helps her exercise. She is hopeful that one day, she will become an international star through the sport. Abia and Anyanzo were the only girls playing in the football game that had 20 boys.

Dorothy Birungi, UNICEF Emergency Education Officer, Gulu Zonal Office says the CFS relieve the children of trauma. “When they come here, they go through a lot. This acts as therapy and psychosocial support. It relieves them of stress,” Birungi explained while taking the team through another UNICEF supported CFS in Pagirinya Refugee Settlement that has 23,766 refugees.

Birungi noted that at all the CFS’ for the refugee children, structured talks and discussions are held. A topic is generated for discussion as a way of giving the children a chance to open up and also learn about thematic issues like health, proper hygiene and disease outbreaks. On a daily basis, 200 children play at the Pagirinya CFS. “I like the swings here. I can swing 3 times a day. I feel happy when I play,” says 3 year old Ateng Kouth (not real names). Ateng is at the settlement with her mum, having lost the dad in Juba, South Sudan.

UN Agencies in Uganda