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UK toys bring laughter and joy to the youngest Syrian refugees

News Stories, 02 June 2014

LONDON, United Kingdom, UNHCR - The faces of Syrian refugee children at Za’atari  camp in Jordan have been shining with joy and elation this week - thanks to generous donations from children in the UK. Excitement filled the air as toys, board games, crayons, puzzles, balls and building blocks made their way into the hands of the youngest Syrian refugees in Za’atari schools, kindergartens and play spaces.

The distribution was the second of its kind within the past six months as part of the ‘Toys for Smiles’ initiative, following on from an initial  delivery during the Christmas period last year.

12 year old Shufa’a’s face lit up with glee as she asked us “People from England sent these? All the way to us? Please, Miss, tell them thank you from me and my sisters."

Tightly holding on to her new pink and white baby doll cradle, 8 year old Razan told us “I don't have any toys like this at home. I always wanted to get one, but I couldn't. Now I have my own."

Scouts and children in the UK from the ages of six to eighteen have been busy during the first few months of this year collecting nearly a tonne and half of toys as part of a project to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the International Scouts and Guides Fellowship. Alan Beavis, Chairman of the National Scout and Guides Fellowship UK, spoke of his pride at their involvement in bringing some cheer to these children’s lives. “[We’ve] shown how everyday ordinary children can directly help their friends in the camps, providing them with some much-needed comfort and fun.”

Delivering such a large shipment was no easy feat. With the logistical assistance of Aviation without Borders, and financial support from ISTAT Foundation, the toys travelled more than 2,300 miles to reach their destination. “Assisting with 'Toys for Smiles' is a great privilege for Aviation without Borders and we are proud to be associated with such a worthwhile UNHCR project,” said Stan Stewart, chair of the charity’s UK branch.

The first batch of toys was handed out by UNHCR and implementing partner International Relief and Development last week at the sports facilities in District 9 of Za’atari camp. After finishing their morning sporting activities, there was an air of palpable anticipation as children aged between six and twelve were told to queue up for a special surprise.

Screams of laughter and happiness soon broke out as toy trucks and dolls were handed out to the younger kids while art supplies and sports equipment went to older kids.

The sheer volume of the donation means distribution of the toys could not be completed in a single round and the rest will be handed out by UNHCR and partners including MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), MDM (Médecins du Monde) and Finnish Church Aid. Save the Children will perform some of the large scale distributions as part of school programs while the medical organisations and UN Women have taken some of the toys for children receiving treatment at medical facilities.

UNHCR staffer Sobia Oberg brought some of the toys to the UNHCR and Norwegian Refugee Council new arrivals area. “There was a 6 year old boy at the clinic, his leg fully braced and his arm in a heavy plaster cast.  I was told his parents were in Syria, but he had been sent across the border in order to receive urgent medical treatment”. When Sobia approached him to make eye contact, she realised that he was also missing one of his eyes. Understandably, the boy was shy and withdrawn.

Sobia handed him a few toys, a set of coloured pencils, erasers and paper. “When he saw them, his whole face lit up with a smile,” said Sobia.  “He told me that he knew exactly how to use them, and when I left, he was drawing and playing, using crayons between his good hand and the fingers of his immobilised arm. The way he looked at me on two occasions didn’t just make my day, it actually made my whole assignment worth being here. He showed no sign of life the first time and the second time he looked at me was as a happy six year old, not thinking about war, just being a child of his age.”

Donations such as these can make a big impact on the lives of children who have often been traumatised by the horrors of conflict. Shadi, a Syrian refugee and football coach in the camp with IRD, told us of the brightness the toys brought into their lives. “The children were so happy because of the toys, it affected them deeply,” he said. “Not many children have toys at home – especially not toys like these. For some children, it may be the first time they see such nice toys."

Za’atari refugee camp is currently home to around 100,000 Syrian refugees, with half of those being children under the age of eighteen. Many are growing up away from one, or both parents. UNHCR and partners endeavor to provide these children with access to education but despite best efforts, well over half of Syrians of school-age in Jordan did not go to school during the previous academic year.

By Charlie Yaxley in London, United Kingdom

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