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5 Lessons I’ve learnt working with children as UNHCR Protection Associate

1 I am not as strong as I thought I am, and nothing is wrong with that

I have had so many people in the past ask how I could do this kind of job, how I could have the strength to deal on a daily basis with one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the world. And to be honest, the answer is always a shoulder shrug, a smile or a confident “I got used to it”. But in reality, I haven’t. The inhumanness of today’s world, the atrocities of war and the horror episodes of mistreatment and abuse that I keep hearing from children makes me unfortunately immune to getting used to all this. I have never gotten used to it; I have just learned to always expect worse than the worst.

The most important lesson I have learned working with children is that my strength is constantly being tested, my strength as a humanitarian worker, as a child protection specialist and as a human being first of all. At work, I have learned that I am not a superhero as I had thought I could be if I work in this field. None of us is. And none of us can protect every single one of the over 13 million refugee children on earth. I have learned and accepted this, not as a way to stop making an effort or to tap on my own shoulder and give myself an excuse if things go wrong. I accepted it to put the correct expectations by myself and for myself, to know where my limits are and what my strengths can help me reach, to simple motivate myself in a healthier way.

At Skaramagas camp in Athens, I had a weekly Friday ritual. It starts with a build-up of emotions from the first hours at work, add to that a group therapy session by our work psychologist which usually turns into the most intense space for tears and the deepest, most honest feelings; and the day usually ends with me sobbing in a corner of the container which was our common office in the camp at the time. Why Friday? Because it was the end of the week and by then I had seen, heard and felt enough every day with the children around me, so much so I was not able to tame my flooding emotions anymore.

However, the more I worked with children the more I leaned how to react to things and how to be “resilient”, which brings me to my next point.

2 Children are the strongest, most resilient group of refugees

I really believe that if I haven’t worked with refugee children, I would have missed on a lot of experiences, a lot of “pearls of wisdom” and a lot of anecdotes that still make my day when I remember them years later. Not only did I get the chance to work with the naturally funniest, most spontaneous social group, but I also got the amazing opportunity to learn much more about the field from the children themselves. On many occasions in my career, I saw parents cry in front of their children, I saw community leaders crash and feel desperate in camps in different countries. But I do not remember a day where I saw children express despair, fear or trauma in a negative or unhealthy way. Working previously in partnership with UNICEF, I have exhausted the list of trainings, manuals and guidelines on child protection and child psychology, preparing myself for a very difficult context of work. I had always known that children are usually the most traumatized group of refugees and then had seen it first hand with Syrian children fleeing war, Yazidi children escaping massacres, Eritreans fleeing lifetime military service, Somalis fleeing the atrocities of Al-Shabab and trying to erase the images of their parents killed in front of their eyes, and the list goes on… However, the longer I work with children, the more I realize they have the highest level of resilience and they are able to use that trauma and mold it into a motivator to build a psychological shield that helps them acculturate and healthily adapt to their new situation.

3 Children are children, refugees or not

Reiterating my usual reminder that refugees are human beings in the first place, I would similarly like to stress that refugee children are children before any “label” that might accompany them at a certain unfortunate period of their life. In other words, I have learned to look beyond the political labels, legal status or migration route of a child and simply focus on the fact that he/she is a child to start with. Realizing that, I noticed that my language was different when I communicate with children. I would not use the same jargon or technical words I would usually use with an adult. I would rather refer to simple examples and the pop culture to explain the most complicated legal procedures to a child. It definitely helped that I was around only 10 years older and had mostly grown up watching the same cartoons as the Syrian children I met in Greece for instance. But it is as easy for anyone and with any cultural background as long as we remember that we are working with children, with human beings.

Likewise, Refugee Status Determination interviews became much more fun with the “children are children” principle I have been basing my work on. Interviews with 12-16 year-old  unaccompanied minors have become our rare opportunity to “have breakfast together and chit-chat for a while about everything and nothing” as I like to explain to the applicants.

Again, children are children. And if you are really passionate about working with children, then it will not be as different if you work with refugee children and unaccompanied minors. The most important thing is to be genuinely kind and interested, and you’ll see the magic happen.

Children know it when you’re really in it to help them, and when you’re with them for the wrong reasons. They know when you are making an effort and they will show their gratitude for it on so many levels, but they are also extremely start and can understand when you are not as genuine. To a child, any child, small things matter.

One of the incidents I would never forget in my life was when I met one of the children I worked with previously on Lesvos Island in Greece. I met him by chance in Athens and I was a little surprised he could remember my name and other details about me. His explanation was “you were the first one who got us chocolate after 8 months of living on aid food and no cash assistance; how could I not remember you?”.

4 Children inspire the artist in me

Working in the humanitarian field and being exposed to some of the world’s most horrific atrocities, we usually find ourselves delving deeper and deeper in refugees’ stories and forgetting what we as human beings can create. Adopting the idea that children refugees are children in the first place, this gave me the inspiration to do more than just be a protection associate. Children have the strongest ability to inspire the artist in us and together we can create magical results. With that in mind, I started a music therapy project in Greece with 12-17-year-old children from different nationalities, speaking different languages and having gone through different journeys. It did not matter as long as we all spoke music as a common language. The project was part of a psychosocial support approach and gave wonderful results. If I could ever go back in time, I would wish to go back to the last concert we held at Skaramagas Refugee Camp where participants of the project proudly sang songs from their hometowns, prayed for their countries to “come back” and expressed emotions they had not been able to express in words.

5 The truth does come out from children’s mouth

Finally, I have understood that children are the most honest human beings you could ever meet. They are curious, ask a ton of questions but in return they give you the most powerful advice you could ever get. I have learned to listen carefully to child refugees and learn from their experiences. I might have not been through what they have lived on the journey to safety, but the first thing I could do as a protection associate before anything is to be there for them, hear their stories and assess their needs to know on what to focus in my work to be able to help them.

About the author

Rahma Henchiri

Rahma Henchiri is an RSD/Protection Associate at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Her humanitarian journey started in refugee camps in Greece from the very first days of the “migration crisis” in the Eastern Mediterranean route (Turkey – Greece). She gained her experience through working with different international and local organizations in Greece before moving to other countries. She has been working with UNHCR for nearly two years now in two different duty stations. Her main focus currently is on asylum law, child protection and SGBV within the refugee communities.

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