Caralyn Perlee, CLDR Director of International Relations has been in France working with Refugee children as part of a CLDR partnership with the Dunkirk Children’s Centre. Here is an update on her experiences– you won’t want to miss this!
On the first of February, I arrived in Dunkirk, France, where Europe’s first humanitarian refugee camp opened in March of 2016. I joined a team of volunteers that were running the children’s centre on camp, and soon assumed the role of Psychosocial and Welfare Coordinator. Dunkirk Children’s Centre had humble beginnings, growing from only a small tent into what eventually became a small campus, with two buildings, one for older children and one for younger, two play structures and an enclosed outdoor playspace. The goal of the organization was to provide a safe and structured play space for refugee children, run by adult figures that they could trust and depend upon.
When I first learned of the Children’s Centre, it seemed as if they were having a particularly difficult time with the children. With the exception of one long-term volunteer who had been there since the beginning and would eventually become director, different volunteers were cycling in an out of the kids’ lives on a weekly basis. Inexperienced volunteers were ill-equipped to handle the constant fights and troublesome behaviors, and were unable to create steady, trusting relationships with the children in order to even begin addressing the source of such behaviors.
When I first arrived, the children- especially the ones that had been living on camp the longest- seemed to be testing the boundaries with me in every way possible. At times I would get so frustrated that I didn’t think I could possibly last longer than a few weeks, but taking a step back and realizing that this was a direct reflection of the chaos, instability and fear that these children were experiencing made me determined to be as unwavering and trustworthy as I could possibly be. While I arrived with many goals for incorporating Child Life practice into the structure of the Children’s Centre, I quickly found out that flexibility and adaptivity were essential. The director had established a structure and routine that was more rule-oriented than an environment I had worked in previously. At first I was hesitant but quickly came to understand the need and the benefit, and it became apparent that before I would be able to accomplish anything of real therapeutic value, I needed to ensure these kids of their very basic need to feel safe.
Over time, as the need for constant behavior management declined, I found that I was more and more able to engage children therapeutically through both directive play and creative arts interventions. Children played out scenarios involving ISIS attacks, police raids, hiding in cargo trucks, boat journeys, and leaving homes and friends behind.
They became eager to tell their stories, once they understood that it was acceptable and safe to do so.
When we were able to enlist the help of an interpreter, it became clear that they were bursting to be heard and understood, and it was humbling to be on the receiving end of it.
Even the child with the most troublesome and violent behaviors, who often came to the centre only to pick fights and instigate chaos, eventually began engaging positively and productively following a particularly profound individual session.
On Monday the 10th of April, a large fire ravaged through the camp, and after the majority of the shelters burned down, the French government made the decision to close the camp altogether. Over 1,500 refugees were left homeless, having once again lost everything, their lives again filled with uncertainty, chaos and fear. The Children’s Centre had been working tirelessly for the past year to provide children with a sense of safety, structure and calm in a life that is otherwise completely absent of such, and overnight all of this was instantly taken from them. Families were moved into gymnasiums, where we were able to go in and set up temporary play spaces (pictured) and be present for the desperately anxious parents. When the gymnasiums closed in a government effort to bus everyone to relocation centers, many families refused and slept either in the woods or on the streets. The Children’s Centre team spent the following two weeks locating families to ensure that children were safe, clothed and fed, and when we were able to, engaging them in as much play as possible. At present, all of the families are safe in relocation centers, but futures are uncertain as they must decide to either seek asylum in France (most of them do not) or leave the country.
As for the Children’s Centre, the director and board of trustees are assessing needs at other refugee camps and looking into locations for the next project. It is the hope of the organization to make future centers sustainable through engaging the local refugee community and training them in the day to day operations and running of the centers. The model of the Children’s Centre is one that I firmly believe in and have seen the benefit of first hand. I am so proud to be a part of it and am eager to work with this organization wherever they may end up next.