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