Safety Nets, Soccer-Style

Sudan, October 20, 2005

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Hassa Hissa Camp, Darfur — Most of the kids on the dusty playground here have had their young lives completely disrupted over the last two years.

But childhood appears fully intact as they chant to visitors, jump rope, chase soccer balls and compete for the attention of Sala Zakaria Ali, the authority figure at one of this huge displacement camp's Child-Friendly Spaces.

"When these children first arrived to the camp, they didn't know left from right," says Sala, a 25-year-old student who spends hours a day here watching the kids. "They were confused and scared and didn't know what to do with themselves."

That's a common condition for children who have been displaced from their home communities, says Hafez Mohammed Zein, manager of Mercy Corps' children's projects in Darfur, and that's why Mercy Corps got involved.

Working with the leaders of those communities relocated to camps around the town of Zelingei, Mercy Corps staff developed the concept of Child-Friendly Spaces for thousands of displaced children.

Displacement camps like Hassa Hissa rarely include the safe, supervised common areas and organized activities for children. Mercy Corps' early evaluation of children's emotional status in Darfur displacement camps confirmed an overwhelming need for a secure place for their play and extracurricular education.

So the agency partnered with the camps' sheiks to set aside land for 24 Child-Friendly Spaces in two camps, construct the play areas and train more than 70 young adults to supervise the areas.

"I love children and I want to nurture these kids, lots of them are from my village," says Sala. His studies have been delayed, but he plans to spend his career working with kids, most likely as a teacher.

Mercy Corps identifies well-educated young adults who are themselves displacedto train as Child-Friendly Space facilitators. Those young people are invited to participate in a rigorous 10-session program that equips them to help children deal with the psychosocial impact of the displacement.

"It has been amazing to see the change in the kids' behavior over time," Sala says. "They are more comfortable with themselves and with each other and it's clear that they are happier than they were."

The facilitators have grown into a valuable part of the caregiving structure of the camps, says Mercy Corps' Hafez Mohammed Zein.

"Parents, including many widowed mothers, spend hours collecting firewood and doing other chores," he says. "They just don't have the time to keep their kids productively engaged. The Child-Friendly Space facilitators are providing them a great service."