Every Child Deserves to Play: Camp Zeitouna Helps the Youngest Syrian Refugees

This month three Syrian-Americans will launch a new project to help the most powerless victims of the Syrian conflict: young children. Known as Camp Zeitouna, the arts and sports training program for young adults will be held at the Atmeh Refugee Camp - one of the largest such camps located inside Syria.

Conditions for the 28,000 refugees in this camp are miserable - with inconsistent access to running water and healthy food. Many of these men, women and children fled their homes and villages to seek refuge and now live in thousands of tents among the former olive groves in this town along the Syrian-Turkish border.

More than a third of the camp's residents are children. Confused and distraught, many of these kids are dealing with the trauma of war and displacement - a trauma I myself know full well as a refugee of the first Gulf War. In times like these, any semblance of regularity can be a therapeutic shield to ward of the uncertainty of conflict.

By providing these children with a structured educational program, Camp Zeitouna not only aims to continue the vital education of the camp's youngest residents, but also provide them with the stability and succor that comes from a healthy routine and the companionship of their friends.

The concept is simple: every child deserves to play. The organizers behind Camp Zeitouna plan to build a soccer field, playgrounds, and run workshops for the children to unleash their creativity and promote teamwork, leadership, and awareness. Workshops will focus on building teamwork and healthy sportsmanship through soccer coaching, allowing children to express their creativity by learning calligraphy, coming to terms with the trauma in their lives through storytelling or journaling, and just having fun by playing games and drawing cartoons.

Volunteers will be traveling to the camp to run the workshops. These "team leaders" will train and hire selected young adults to run the camp after the initial phase. The organizers of Camp Zeitouna aim to involve members of the Atmeh camp in the planned activities with children, primarily in order to strengthen the bonds between the adults and children in the community.

The Camp is the brainchild of artist Kinda Hibrawi, architect Lina Sergie Attar, and Yakzan Shishakly, Director of the Olive Tree Camp/Atmeh, and is the pilot phase of a larger project that will be implemented across other internally displaced persons camps in Syria.

In a devastating war-zone that seems to be deteriorating by the day, it may seem that the concept of safe and free spaces of play should be the last thing on our minds when we think of Syria. But in fact, projects like these should be our priority. Syrian children have suffered greatly over the last two years and have been deprived of much more than basic necessities -- they have been deprived of their childhoods. Already many experts and aid organizations are describing these children as Syria's "lost generation." We should work to counter this assumption. This is the generation that will rebuild Syria, but only if we give them a chance, and the tools, to do so.

To prove this point, donors from all over the world have stepped in to support Camp Zeitouna's mission with over $60,000 raised so far. In addition to cash donations, many institutional donors such as the Sagar Family Foundation have donated goods, including 1100 soccer balls, to the project.

I encourage all of you to learn more about this great cause. Through Camp Zeitouna and the gifts of creativity and learning, I hope that we can attempt to change these children's lives, if only for a brief period of time, and in the process, hopefully encourage a resolution to the greater, terrible conflict in Syria.

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