Finding a safe space to play, learn and heal

Published: Mar 21, 2022 Reading time: 3 minutes
Finding a safe space to play, learn and heal
© Foto: Karen Minasyan

The 6-week long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020 has pushed hundreds of thousands to flee their homes for safety. Today, some remain displaced. Many of them are children.

At EU-funded child-friendly spaces in Armenia, run by the Czech NGO ‘People in Need’, they learn to cope with their experience of witnessing violence and being uprooted.

The room is warm and bright, the walls are decorated with drawings and pictures, and the cupboards are filled with toys. In the middle of it all, a group of children listens to music.

Lost in their thoughts, they paint whatever comes to their minds. “At the beginning, the children wouldn’t even stand next to each other because they didn’t trust where they were,” says Lora, the psychologist running this art therapy session.

“But now, they have good relationships. The children speak more easily about what happened; the memories are not that painful anymore,” she explains.

We are in Goris, southern Armenia, at one of the 7 child-friendly spaces run by the Czech NGO ‘People in Need’ with EU humanitarian funding. Children aged 6 to 14 come here after school to play, learn, and spend time with their peers.

About half of them fled the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in late 2020. The 6-week long hostilities resulted in thousands of casualties, including civilian deaths and injuries.

While some families have returned since then, others might not be able or willing to do so. Many displaced people still require humanitarian and early recovery assistance.

Healing the emotional scars of conflict

It is not only the loss of belongings, jobs and livelihoods that displaced families grapple with. It is also the experience of witnessing conflict and being uprooted.

“Mostly, children are coping with the same traumas as their parents,” says Lora. “Some lost family members. They left good living conditions and now face the unknown. Many of the children had nightmares and were afraid of loud noises. I could see that they would isolate themselves. Some didn’t want to eat, were aggressive, tired, or often got sick.”

Lora’s sessions help the children understand themselves, their feelings, and process their experiences.

“We made sure to create an environment, an atmosphere, where children felt safe and comfortable to express themselves,” explains Lora, who was born and raised in Goris, the very town she now works in.

“First, we asked them just to say out loud what they had experienced, to help them understand. This also helped the children see that others had faced the same situation, that they weren’t alone. Our work was to bring them to the present and leave the past behind,” she says.

The 7 child-friendly spaces, established in 2020 by USAID and since September 2021 funded by the European Union, are attended by some 400 kids in total.

Many are from vulnerable families and live in small, crowded places. Spending time in a child-friendly space helps them relax and allows them to connect with their friends in a safe environment.

While many children have opened up and made friends in the time that has passed since the conflict, there is still a lot of work. “I hear about cases of children who stay at home, they don’t go out, they don’t speak to people,” says Lora.

“It is important to find them because often it’s not only the child, but the entire family struggling with the situation,” she explains.

‘People in Need’ organises sessions at schools to inform about the child-friendly spaces that are open to all children free of charge. They also promote them on social media together with the Municipality.

“I am always excited to work with children. The best motivation is to see that they learn things, that they are happy, that they are smiling,” concludes Lora as she wraps up the session.

“I believe that years later when these children grow up, they will carry the good impact from the child friendly space within them.” 

Autor: Lisa Hastert, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

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