For decades HCI has been promoting interaction and the sharing of ideas and resources among children in marginalized communities and their peers from different areas as a “discrete” tool that eventually leads to greater understanding of the other, which addresses the bigger headlines of coexistence, tolerance, pluralism and nonviolence.
Using its years of cumulative experience in this field, including its recent similar work in El-Nabaa area north of Beirut and in Amman and Zarqa in Jordan working with Iraqi refugees and their Jordanian hosts, HCI is now working with the children of the Shatila refugee camp and its surrounding areas to address these same issues through the implementation of a series of activities that stimulate them to become more positively engaged with their surroundings, build bridges among the different factions of the camps’ communities and communities from outside the camp and improve their psychosocial wellbeing.
The inhabitants of the Shatila refugee camp are among Lebanon’s most marginalized communities, they face a number of problems ranging from lack of social and civil rights to no access to public and social services, from very limited access to hospitals and schools to lack of safe spaces for children to play in.
HCI’s activities are bringing together children from different backgrounds between the ages of 9 and 14 to participate in a series of tailored activities, such as celebrating relevant internationally recognized days, highlighting special national causes, participating in community gatherings, and learning new information and skills.
The benefits of these activities are manifold; first, they serve as a means of awareness and education, where the children are stimulated to become more positively engaged in their surroundings. Secondly, these activities serve as a form of psychosocial support, giving them a chance to engage in “fun” activities, improving their mental and emotional health. Thirdly, and most importantly, they expose the youth to people of all backgrounds and communities, and encourage them to interact and share. Firsthand contact encourages the youth to see those with different backgrounds as fellow human beings, and not simply as “others.” Numerous studies have shown that increased contact between communities, sharing of resources and knowledge, and working together for one cause can serve to break down divisions, reduce the potential for conflict, and increase social cohesion.
Simultaneously, HCI’s intervention aims at tackling “discreetly” the issue of children at-risk by involving them in the project activities as the main target participants, be it working children, children on the street, street children, victims of abuse, children who live below the poverty line and others. More focus is given on children living in families considered to be “extremely poor”, particularly since children who grow up in families with low incomes are significantly more likely to experience a wide range of problems and poor developmental outcomes than others. Research has shown that there are significant associations between poverty and children’s health, cognitive development, behavior problems, emotional well-being, and problems with school achievement. Studies have shown that 8 percent of the children in Lebanon live on less than $2.40 a day and 9 percent of young people aged between 6 and 19 in the Palestinian camps live on less than $2 a day, while victims of child labor in Lebanon are estimated to be around 7 percent of the children. The aim is to promote at-risk children’s right to care, health, safety and education and to help return to some sense of normalcy to their daily life through interaction, sharing, fun and learning with their peer children.
One of the first activities HCI sponsored was the celebration of world environment day, the diverse group of children started the day by planting trees in the dusty play area of their local community center, in the hope of transforming this barren urban area into a green space full of trees (more trees were later planted in several locations all over the camp.) After much digging and watering, the children were treated to an educational and fun trip far away from their overcrowded environment at a wildlife reserve in the Shouf Mountains to enjoy and learn about nature, while interacting and sharing all the way, from the planting of trees to the hiking in the vast lush green landscape for hours while learning about the importance of protecting the environment. The children went swimming in a natural spring to cool off and were provided with a delicious and nutritious lunch before heading back home.
Another activity the children participated in was a community iftar during the month of Ramadan, Ramadan is traditionally a time when individuals, families and communities make an effort to bond and spend time together. Hundreds of impoverished children from the camp were invited during Ramadan to participate in a community iftar in another related activity, which allowed them to get to know each other better and enjoy a healthy meal and fun activities, strengthening contacts with other members of the community, and hopefully building friendships that will last long after the project has ended.
More activities have commenced, including a photography and image related workshop and exhibition for the children. The theme of the exhibition “interaction and sharing“ and the images captured and exhibited will also serve to stimulate a greater, more tangible understanding of these concepts among the children and the community in general. The implementation of this activity will be participatory from the start, bringing artist photographers, development practitioners, volunteer workers, community leaders, and a very diverse group of children together to design and implement the activity, working together, while learning, interacting and sharing along the way, all themed around interaction and sharing, which addresses the bigger headlines of coexistence, tolerance, pluralism and nonviolence using photography as means to an end.
HCI will also join 50 of the above children to run together as part of the Beirut Marathon this month to promote healthy eating habits and exercise among children which has been a major theme at HCI for the past 3 years as well as the development of healthy eating manuals, school kitchens, health-related publications and series of events as part of the same program.