Child-friendly spaces a one-stop centre for refugee children

Thursday 28 September 2017

He runs through the group of boys, his eyes fixed on one thing. Criss-crossing through his peers, he finally gets to the ball, and for a few seconds at least, it is in his control, before he has to pass it on to a team mate.

“I enjoy playing football,” says 13-year-old Aziz Maliyamungu, panting. “It is my favourite game.”

Maliyamungu, who stays in Bidibidi refugee resettlement in Yumbe district, Northern Uganda, is not like other boys. He was born with only one arm. An orphan, Maliyamungu stays with his grandmother and 11-year-old brother Francis. The family arrived in Uganda in December 2017, fleeing violence in their home in South Sudan, and were settled in Bidibidi refugee resettlement, currently known as the largest resettlement in the world, with over 272,000 refugees, all from South Sudan.

Maliyamungu attends primary school at a nearby UNHCR-run school where he is in primary three. Sharing a boundary with the school is Yangani child-friendly space (CFS), operated by Save the Children. Everyday after school, Maliyamungu and Francis make a stopover at the CFS before returning home.

“I come here to play, and I am happy because I have made some friends at the CFS,” he says with a disarming smile.

Maliyamungu plays football with his teammates.

Maliyamungu has not always been this happy. He arrived in Uganda on his own, having fled home when fighting broke out in the village. As his family dispersed in different directions, he followed strangers who were headed out of South Sudan and into Uganda. By a stroke of luck, he met his younger brother Francis at the border registration point and later officials worked together to reunite both of them with their grandmother and cousins.

“I was very happy to see my brother again. He helps me to bathe, wash and do several other things I am not able to do with only one arm,” says Maliyamungu.

And at the Yangani CFS, the duo get to participate in something they derive a lot of joy in – football.

Yangani is one of 31 child-friendly spaces that Save the Children has set up and runs in the South Sudanese refugee-hosting settlements. UNICEF defines a child-friendly space as a place where children affected by natural disasters or armed conflict can be provided with a safe environment, and where integrated programming including play, recreation, education, health and psychosocial support can be delivered.

Margaret Atimango, child protection and child rights governance specialist with Save the Children Uganda, says a child-friendly space is a proven approach for supporting such children return to a sense of normalcy.

“Given the high levels of distress the children may have gone through, a child-friendly space is a safe place where they can play, learn and get healing,” she explains.

Each of the child-friendly spaces has outdoor play materials that include swings, see-saws, slides, balls and car tyres as well as indoor materials like  board games. Besides enabling children to interact and release their stress, the games help them learn different skills.

“Children learn through play, and it contributes to their growth and development. Play is important for a child’s holistic development,” Atimango adds.

The child-friendly space is regarded as a one-stop centre, for not only do children come to play; during the first half of the day the young ones (3-6-year-olds) get to participate in early childhood development programmes that equip them with basic numeracy and literacy skills. Staff are also able to identify children in need of further help such as psychosocial and medical services, and support them to get the assistance they need.

By the end of August 2017, Uganda hosted 1,012,475 refugees from South Sudan, 729,123 of whom had arrived in the country since 7th July 2016 when the new spate of fighting broke out in the country. It is estimated that 65% of the refugees from South Sudan are children, who are in need of education, protection and health services.

By Sylvia Nabanoba.