Eleven-year-old Rojda Ayoub Said-Khalaf had to flee from her Damascus home. She is one of the many children affected by the 32-month-long conflict in Syria.
Another is Omar Maqsoud. He is 14.
“I saw things nobody should see. I’ve seen war planes, missiles, machine guns, tanks. You can’t imagine how scared I was,” said Omar.
Rojda described what happened when she left the Syrian capital: “I was at school when the building was attacked. My mum came to pick me up and hide me from the government forces.”
“We got used to the war. We could sleep even through the sound of gunfire and helicopters,” added Omar.
Rojda and Omar arrived with their respective families at Domiz about seven months ago.
Domiz is a Syrian refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, the largest camp in the whole of Iraq.
Neither of the children wanted to leave Syria, but violence, fear and poverty finally forced them to cross the border into Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I left Damascus, but, at first, my parents and relatives stayed. Sometimes I felt very sad because they were there and I was somewhere else. I wondered why they didn’t come for me,” said Rojda.
“There must have been a good reason, and it was because of the house that we’d been building for years,” she explained.
Breaking down in tears, Rodja’s mother Hadya Hamko recalled how painful it was to leave the family home.
“We worked for nine years to save money to buy our house in Damascus. We only stayed in our home for eight days, then the area was bombarded and we had to leave”.
Around 60,000 people live at Domiz refugee camp. Around half are children. Omar and Rojda, like all the other kids, bear the scars of war and they are looking for some semblance of a normal life.”
Both children have missed over a year of school and they did not make it into the classroom this year because the three schools in the camp are already overcrowded.
Instead, they found their way to the ‘Youth Friendly Space’ and the ‘Child Friendly Space’ – two initiatives opened in April by the French non-governmental organisation ACTED.
“We use many different methods when dealing with traumatised children. The most basic is concentrating and focusing on the positive things and traits that the child has, and building on them so that he or she is able to cope with the life here and move forward,” said Ibrahim Khalil, a Syrian refugee who works for ACTED.
Like lots of other children at Domiz, Omar has had trauma assessment to find out about his war experiences and the impact they have had on him. At the ‘Youth Friendly Space’ he can take part in supervised cultural and therapeutic activities if he needs to.
“This is a Kurdish lesson, which is very important to me because it’s my mother tongue and learning it was forbidden in Syria,” said Omar.
Radjo explained why she comes to the ‘Child Friendly Space’: “We play, we take part in drama, they tell us stories. It’s nice because we can forget and we don’t have to think a lot.”
EU Nobel Peace Prize funds have been given to these two centres as part of the initiative EU Children of Peace that helps kids affected by conflicts.
The ‘Child Friendly Space’ and ‘Youth Friendly Space’ are designed to be used by up to 250 children a week. They are used by over 1,000, but there are 30,000 kids at the camp and the harsh conditions at Domiz make normal child development very hard.
“I think if the situation carries on for a long time, children in the camp won’t be able to return a normal life,” said ACTED worker Ibrahim.
“Although children are quite resilient, they will not be able to maintain this resilience if they continue to live in a camp situation,” he added.
Thousands of children are ready to cross the border into Syria looking for a “playground refuge”. But in Domiz, everyone knows that being safe from war also means being far from home.