Children, migration, and the need for safe spaces

A relevant question when working with refugee children is “what does it mean to be a refugee child?”. The topic of childhood and migration is important since out of millions of people forced to flee, a large percentage are families with kids. Indeed, according to UNICEF, one-third of all refugees and migrants arriving in Europe are children.

During the process of migration, many of them are exposed to risks and difficulties related to war, violence, exploitation, and abuses. In addition, they undergo many changes: country, culture, language, home, external space, and school become different from what they were used to. As a result, many children experience the first phase of migration with confusion and disorientation. All these changes can create a psychological vulnerability that often manifests in trauma, development dysfunctions, communication, and socialization difficulties.

Moreover, growing up in a refugee camp means living in a suspended time, a dimension of passage in which one waits for something to happen and it is often characterized by the difficulty of wishing for a better future, which seems pretty far away. Childhood is a critical phase of development: how children are treated and nurtured in the early phases of their lives can have lifelong consequences on mental and physical health, so supporting their growth fairly is important.

Even parents often struggle to understand what children need and find it difficult to mediate between them and the new internal and external spaces in which they live. For this reason, it is important to have external organisations that help support the children’s growth in the best way possible, making their safety and security a priority. It must therefore be a joint responsibility of the family and the service provider to create the right conditions to overcome or alleviate these traumas, working together in a comprehensive way.

This is what Open Cultural Center does with the support of Amna, a partner organisation dedicated to providing services to refugee communities, focusing on children and women, who are often the most vulnerable groups. In order to create a world where everyone can determine their own future, Amna works to mitigate the impact of trauma on kids. 

Amna has been partnering with OCC for three years, thanks to which we are able to work with two different groups: one for kids aged 0 to 3 years old, and another one for kids aged 4 to 7. The collaboration involves specific training and sessions to understand Amna’s approach, as well as receiving grants in addition to technical advice. The support of this organisation is therefore two-sided, as it provides both knowledge-based guidance, as well as material resources.

Dealing with such young children entails great responsibility and even more so when refugee children are involved, because of their past and the traumatic and violent background they may carry with them. Thus, the approach of Amna is based on creating safe spaces where children, together with their parents, can convene and heal as a community. To break the cycle of trauma that can affect refugee families for a long time, the idea is to create a family- and community-focused space.

Children usually need more than a friendly space where to play; they also need to express their feelings and emotions, both positive and negative, to connect with both adults and peers and to discover more about themselves. This can be achieved by creating a sort of routine that gives children a sense of normality, in which they can start to feel comfortable and safe again. Through a structured play and learning program, where respect is the main pillar to follow, many activities are proposed and carried on, such as therapeutic free play, storytelling, meditation, physical movement, self-expression activities, crafting, painting, and dance.

OCC is committed to following this approach, putting it into practice in all the activities related to children. In this way, they can get used to a routine, which allows them to develop social skills and creativity, and learn how to be present at the moment. Through cooperative games, workshops, crafts, short trips and stories the goal is to engage the kids, make them feel part of a community where they can express themselves without concerns and alleviate the trauma and the stress they may have due to their past and present experiences.