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Photo by James Rollins/UMCOR

Children from Syria line up for games in child-friendly space at a refugee camp near Kilis, Turkey. The United Methodist Committee on Relief worked with a Turkish non-governmental organization (NGO) to help provide services to children displced from Syri

Photo by James Rollins/UMCOR

Francesco Paganini enjoys games and songs with children in the play space in the emidst of a camp for Syrian refugees.

Photo by James Rollins/UMCOR

A visit to the child-friendly space offers respite for this young Syrian refugee in a camp in Turkey.

Photo by James Rollins/UMCOR

Francesco Paganini (right), UMCOR international disaster response executive, talks with a colleague in the child-friendly space for young Syrian refugees in a camp in Turkey. The space is funded by UMCOR and managed by the International Blue Crescent.

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Commentary: Syrian refugee crisis challenges us to respond


By Francesco Paganini
March-April 2014

When I was traveling to Turkey to visit the UMCOR-supported child-friendly space for Syrian refugees, Switzerland was marking the 70th anniversary of the influx of Italian refugees into that country triggered by the establishment of a German puppet regime during World War II.

Among the refugees was my grandfather, who deserted his military unit for fear of being sent to Germany to fight with the Axis powers. During one of the commemorations of that exodus, an elderly man, who as a Swiss teen had watched the stream of people crossing over the border from Italy, said words that stuck with me throughout my trip to Turkey: "It causes something bad to your heart to see people fleeing from their own country."

The forced movement of people is a manifestation of the brokenness of our world. Refugees, people who cross international borders, and internally displaced persons, those displaced in their own country, too often have to endure the most of failed diplomacy, unjust policies and injustice in relationships.

In Turkey, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is working with a Turkish non-governmental organization (NGO) to help provide services to children displaced from Syria. The town of Kilis once had a bustling interaction with Syria. Turks would sometimes drive to Homs for dinner and return the same night. Today, one can only make the journey at great peril and across roads often too bombed out to cross without four-wheel drive and controlled by disparate groups of armed men. Meanwhile, the roughly 90,000 Turkish citizens of Kilis have had to absorb about the same number of Syrian men, women and children fleeing from the fighting in their country.

While most of these refugees have sought lodging within the city's apartments, those without monetary means have gone into transition camps. Inside the camp, you see children playing in the dirt or sitting and talking among themselves. However, the vast majority are hanging on the outside of a tent where a loud ruckus emanates from every window.

This is the child-friendly space funded by UMCOR and managed by International Blue Crescent, a Turkish NGO. In here for two hours a day, shifts of children divided by age groups play games. The deafening sound of children playing (you cannot even speak at a normal level) bounces off the sadness of seeing displaced peoples to generate a unique melancholy. It generates hope because you find in that sound the possibility of rebuilding and rage, as it reminds you that this group is least at fault and, perhaps, most hurt by the fighting over the border.

Refugee children are not only robbed of their homes and daily routines but from them also is taken a period of life which human rights and divine justice demand be one of exploration and security. The damage done to refugee children cannot be measured in hospital visits or numbers displaced. Rather, it is a violation of the entitlement of being a child. The child-friendly space is an attempt to provide at least some refuge for those young people saddled with experiences, images and thoughts that should never have been imposed on them. It is an opportunity to shed their refugee status for a time and focus on the game in front of them. It is not a panacea for the injustice inflicted on them or even a wholly rehabilitative care, but it is — at the least — a manifestation that their rights extend beyond food, water and shelter.

From inside, I could see the faces of the children who were hanging from every window. (That I had noticed from outside as I approached the tent.) These were the children whose shift either had come or was scheduled for later. Their laughter joined that of the lucky ones in the current shift who chased each other during various games. Though I speak no Arabic and know little of the culture, I recognized the games easily: Follow the Leader, Simon Says and others that I also played as a child. I am always amazed at how borders or culture cannot stop games and how I have seen the same game played in the most different of places. In the child-friendly space, the number of children served is already two times what was originally envisioned. With the influx of Syrians into Turkey continuing, the number of people needing services is mounting.

From my grandfather 70 years ago to the young children who play Duck, Duck, Goose inside that tent, displaced people are among the least of our brothers and sisters and a reminder that we still live in a broken world. I hear much talk of donor fatigue and weariness over the seemingly unending conflict in Syria. We must remember that the hurt we feel as we see people fleeing their own lands is not a call for surrender or pity but, rather, a call to action.

Francesco Paganini is executive secretary for international disaster response with the United Methodist Committee on Relief. James Rollins is director of communications for UMCOR.