By Julia Spry-Leverton and Kate Rose, based on inputs from Ansar Rasheed
It could have been the end for Khalid, that day nearly three years ago, in the schoolyard with his friend Malik, and the others. They all scattered and he ran for shelter when they heard the whine of the rocket. He’d felt the searing heat, covered his ears against the explosion. He’d looked back and he saw Malik wasn’t there. Afterwards, Khalid learned it was a direct hit, right where they’d been playing. It could have been him who died that day.
Though the world has heard about the escalation of Yemen’s conflict in March 2015, armed groups have been active in Dhale for a long time. But the situation got much worse for Khalid when his neighbourhood came under direct attack and his family’s home was destroyed. They moved from place to place. No one went out on the streets to play. So many risks: afraid of stepping on a landmine in the ground, of being hit by a stray bullet. By this time the biggest threat to people was the new and more terrifying bombardments from the air, relentless flights overhead all through the night, every night, shelling the city, reducing familiar areas to gaping craters and grey piles of rubble. “It’s as though your life has been paused,” Khalid says. “And worse than that is losing hope. Giving up is like dying slowly.”
The anxious feelings strangling him wouldn’t go away. “There is nothing like living in constant fear of losing your life.” He says. The eldest of six children, Khalid felt a burden of responsibility for his four brothers and sister and for his mother while his father worked long hours, doing several jobs to support them. He struggled on alone trying to cope, his daily round helping at home, trying to keep up his studies. One of the repetitive jobs was getting water, carrying the slopping buckets from whatever source was available to wherever shelter had been found. Even the very small kids took turns, doing what they could. With the piped water supply destroyed, the frequent electricity cuts, what little food there was in the markets unaffordable, always being hungry, just to live daily life was an exhausting ordeal. And over the last months the intensity of the conflict and the damage it caused, had gone on increasing.
Khalid isn’t alone: in his neighbourhood hundreds – and in his country hundreds of thousands – of children share his predicament. It’s the same story: their childhoods brutally wrenched away, their families bereaved, their home and school routines smashed. With an estimated 2.3 million people now displaced in Yemen (nearly 10 percent of the population), children don’t even yet have the normalcy of schooling to count on, as the Ministry of Education has had to extend the back to school date yet again to 1 November.
Across the country, UNICEF works with Yemen’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour (MOSAL) and other partners to provide psychosocial support (PSS) to children affected by conflict, in a protective environment through a network of Child-Friendly Spaces (CFS). So many of the children in Khalid’s neighbourhood were out of school, some had never started lessons due to the war’s disruption, so the local CFS was very welcome. There the children could gather together in a safe place and get busy with learning activities and in playing energising games, singly as well as in teams, supervised by trained volunteers. The CFS staff had a box of games and puzzles they selected from: there were chess and draughts, hand puppets, and Lego bricks with which to construct models. Sometimes the children sat in a circle and listened to stories.
A transformation took place in Khalid: from the sad and withdrawn boy of former days to a leader among his peers. It happened gradually over the months, really kicking in only once he’d admitted he needed help. “I had to rethink and evaluate my situation,” says Khalid. There are many young people like me in Syria and Iraq! I read about some who never gave up, never surrendered to their fear. They stopped turning back and with great courage they went forward instead.” Assisting his progress greatly, he received counselling organised through the CFS in Dhale by MOSAL. PSS is integral to UNICEF’s programmes in situations where children are suffering traumatic events, seeing terrifying and horrific things occurring around them. Khalid attended regular sessions. The therapy, the exposure to new people and the tension-releasing games worked together to reveal his leadership potential and he began volunteering as a youth organiser.
In the busy ambience Khalid discovered how much he enjoyed participating. He comments how he felt “good and noble” working with the small children, and was able to make the link between being busy and valued and feeling better about himself. Looking back he says, “I realised nothing was going to happen if I remained in my room crying and blaming destiny.”
“He’s a great role model for the other kids and he’s always raising awareness amongst them so they understand it’s their right that their views are heard says Mazen Mahmoud from MOSAL. “If this country’s to have a future, it’s fundamental young people know they have to be involved in its development.”
Khalid’s often seen nowadays with a video camera in his hand. He had some weeks of training through a UNICEF supported project and learned how photography could help him communicate to other youth, how important acquiring technical skills could be in documenting his story. Khalid created a video describing the aftermath to his school’s destruction on the day Malik died. “My involvement in making this video made a major, positive change in me,” says Khalid, “and now my faith in a better, peaceful future is what’ll keep me going.”
His father Walid also sees the difference in him and is very proud of the man he is becoming. “Khalid is my eldest son. I am his father and he is my role model!” he says, proud of what he is doing not only for their family but for his community too. “He always sticks to his belief and principles that giving up and surrendering to sorrow will take you nowhere.”
Blog provided by UNICEF
Images © UNICEF Yemen/2014/Yasser Abdulbaki
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