Syrian sisters help to bring change for children in Cairo, Egypt

Sunday 22 June 2014

(L-R) Syrian sisters Fatma, Banan and Media Al Safady at Save the Children’s Child Friendly Space in El-Obour, Greater Cairo, where they have helped facilitate children’s activities since November 2013.


 “What I will remember most about Egypt is my experiences working at the Child Friendly Space. I grew up. I learned how to be human, how to be free”.

 Media Al Safady is a 22 year old Syrian who has been working at one of Save the Children’s Child Friendly Spaces since November 2013. She has been in Egypt for one year, living with her mother and three sisters near to the Child Friendly Space in the El-Obour area of Greater Cairo. Media and her sister Banan, 19, have been facilitating children’s activities six days per week, while their youngest sister Fatma, 17, was supporting the sessions as a part-time volunteer. Their older sister works at a Syrian community school in the local area.

The girls heard about Save the Children while volunteering with a local partner organisation. They were not familiar with the idea of a Child Friendly Space, but jumped at the chance to work with children, and the centre has proven to be a huge success with the local community. “Syrian families’ first reaction to the Child Friendly Space was ‘finally, somewhere for our children to have fun’. Most Syrian children are kept at home, as the community in this area do not go out a lot. The children were relieved to come here, as for many it is the only time that they leave the house”, says Media. Alongside Syrians, the number of Egyptian children is increasing, due not only to more outreach within the host community, but also because Syrian children now know more Egyptians and want to bring their new friends along too.

 There are currently around 650 children registered at the El-Obour Child Friendly Space, and approximately 70% of the children attending are Syrian, though this is gradually changing as the Child Friendly Space becomes better known within the host community. A wide range of activities is on offer, such as handcrafts, drawing, sports, drama, photography and filmmaking. “We aim to educate the children in a fun, memorable way”, Media emphasises. There are also practical sessions such as how to run their homes in the future, and the importance of recycling.

 “What the children like most is creating their own plays. It’s like you see their souls, really it’s amazing to watch them. They do everything themselves”, Media explains. “I feel very proud, seeing the children grow up in front of you and improve in all these ways”. An important element of the children’s time at the Child Friendly Space is the psychosocial support in which a psychosocial support team holds one-to-one sessions with the most vulnerable children, and run group therapy to help them develop their relationship-building skills and increase their self-esteem.  They also hold trainings for parents to teach them how to deal with sensitive cases.  This form of support is an integral part of the project. “It is like adding spice to a dish – the psychosocial element is added to every activity we do in the CFS.”

 Banan stated, “Working here has had a big effect on us, as facilitators. It’s really become part of me, and I’m proud that I work here. It has changed my personality a lot, so of course I think it must have a positive effect on the children and change their lives.” Media agrees, having seen huge steps forward in many of the children’s attitudes and behaviour.  “What makes you happy is when you compare them now to when they first started coming here. You saw them fighting, but now, if a new kid arrives and does something wrong, the other children tell them ‘No, we don’t fight here - it’s not good to fight’. It’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

 Media gives an example of one boy who has made a dramatic turnaround since attending the Child Friendly Space. “When he first came here, he was fighting all the time; he cursed and fought over little things with his friends. He would say ‘I don’t want these friends’. Now, he’s the one who makes friends with new people. You know that this child will go on to help develop the future of Syria, and you as facilitators were a part of this.” Fatma has also noticed visible changes in them during her time volunteering. “I’ve found that all the children have changed. The Child Friendly Space has become part of their lives. They love the place and they want to come every day. They are becoming more social and active.”

The family will soon travel to Turkey however so that the girls can finish their studies, which they have had to put on hold since they left Syria a year ago. Working with Save the Children in Egypt has given the sisters though an opportunity to feel involved in their local community. Of her time as a facilitator over the past eight months, Banan says: “It changed me for the better. I am becoming older and wiser. I understand the children very well – what they want, what they need.” The experience will leave a lasting impression on both the children they met, and the sisters themselves. Media says “The Child Friendly Space and working with Save the Children was an amazing experience, one which opened my heart, which opened my soul, and taught me a lot. I know that in my heart I will never forget it.”