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UK toys bring smiles to Syrian refugee children

News Stories, 24 December 2013

© UNHCR/A.Needham
For many children in Jordan's Za'atri refugee camp, this initiative gave them the only toys they have.

ZA'ATRI, Jordan, December 24 (UNHCR) The daily routine at kindergartens in Jordan's Za'atri refugee camp rarely begins with the laughter of Syrian children, despite the valiant efforts of their teachers and guardians. This Monday's cold but sunny morning in the 'Sunshine' kindergarten in Za'atri's District 6 was quite different. Excitement, joy, happiness and disbelief rang out as hundreds of toys found their way into the hands of some of the youngest Syrian refugees.

Created, donated or collected by children in Oxford and Berkshire through the Pitt Rivers Museum and the UK Scouts and Guides Fellowship during the Autumn, the toys travelled more than 2,300 miles to their final destination a journey made possible by the UK branch of Aviation Without Borders and UNHCR. The initiative, entitled 'Toys for Smiles' proved this week to be worthy of its name.

"Today we had a surprise. We were told that kids from Britain had sent us toys. I am really amazed. I got Playdoh and I think I can do a lot with it. Thank you, you have made us very happy today," said five year-old Doa'a who fled with her family from Dera'a.

The UK initiative 'Toys for Smiles' follows a similar project organised by Quai Branly Museum in Paris with the help of the UNHCR and the Fédération des Associations d'Anciens du Scoutisme (FAAS) for Syrian refugee children in Turkey.

In the UK, following several months of preparations this summer, the initiative took off during the half-term break in October when children from Oxford schools gathered at toy workshops organised by the Pitt Rivers Museum. Some of them made toys for Syrian refugee children, others donated. On Monday their efforts were met with gratitude and smiles. These toys are a small but important comfort for traumatised children who have lost their homes, or perhaps even their parents, siblings or relatives.

For Syrian refugee children this was a gesture of solidarity and compassion: "The kids in England sent these toys to us because they know we have nothing of our own," said Waed who is five and received a small pink dollhouse. Her friend Mohamed, also five, hugged a clockwork police car: "I want to tell the kids who sent all this stuff that we didn't have toys but now we have more than we ever could have imagined."

The toys distributed on Monday through UNHCR's partner Save the Children International also included those donated or collected by the UK Scouts and Guides Fellowship. All three kindergartens, 17 child friendly spaces and three multi-activity centres in Za'atri refugee camp benefited from 'Toys for Smiles' initiative.

"These children don't have any toys. They have fled their homes and had to leave their cherished and loved toys and games behind in what was a safe and protected place for them. That is why they are so excited to be able to take them home with them to keep," said Safia Abu Shaneen, the 'Sunshine' kindergarten's head teacher. "There is a big positive psychological impact for them because of this act. We explained to the children who had sent the toys and games and they were so happy to hear that people cared enough about them to send them these gifts."

Moving nearly half a ton of toys from the United Kingdom to Jordan was a logistical feat undertaken by the UK branch of the Aviation Without Borders and financially supported by ISTAT foundation. "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.

Za'atari refugee camp is currently home to more than 120,000 Syrian refugees and today it is the fifth largest settlement in Jordan. So far the Syrian conflict has forced more than 2.3 million Syrians to flee their country. More than half of them are children who are now growing up in fractured families, missing out on education and serving as their household's primary breadwinner.

By Andy Needham in Za'atri and Andrej Mahecic in London

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Jordan: Toy Distribution Play video

Jordan: Toy Distribution

The UK Pitt Rivers Museum and the UK Scouts and Guides Fellowship have collected toys from British school children to send to Syrian refugee children, based on their global partnership with UNHCR. The most recent shipment consisted of five boxes of toys that weighed more than 800 kilos.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

The violence inside Syria continues to drive people from their homes, with some seeking shelter elsewhere in their country and others risking the crossing into neighbouring countries. The United Nations estimates that up to 4 million people are in need of help, including some 2 million believed to be internally displaced.

The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

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The Fight for Survival – Syrian Women Alone

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Syria: A Heartbreaking Human Tragedy

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