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#OurCommunities: The Power of Play in the Aftermath of War: Rayan Salam

“One of the most beautiful aspects, I think, is that it makes them feel at peace. They forget about their current troubles, what they have been through and about war. For a bit they just play." —Rayan Salam

Imagine having to leave everything you know behind and travel thousands of miles in dangerous and uncertain conditions. You end up in an unfamiliar country where you don’t speak the language, your future is unknown, and you are not sure if you will ever be accepted. At the same time, you are still haunted by the terrible events that previously compelled you to leave your country.

For many people today, this is a reality: war, violence and persecution are forcing more people around the world to leave their homes than at any time since the aftermath of the Second World War. Worldwide, 22.5 million people are seeking safety across international borders as refugees, and very worrisomely, half of them are children. Thousands of these children take flight without the protection of parents or other family members. In these times of crisis, the refugee camps have become hugely important parts of the Play for Peace community.

Play is so important for the well-being of children, that the United Nations recognizes it as a fundamental human right, at the same level as the rights to shelter and education. The work and effort of the PFP teams for refugee children is spreading around the world in the form of waves of joy and laughter and are aimed to provide children with some relief from the great difficulties and trauma many of them have experienced as consequences of war and flight. Rayan Salam is one of the young people who had to leave his hometown of Bashiqa, Iraq, when he was only 16 years old. An attack in the area made it unsafe to stay, forcing him and his family to flee to the North of Iraq, where it was less dangerous at the time. After working enough to gain sufficient funds, Rayan and his family left Iraq to make the journey to Europe, hoping to start a new life in another country. Rayan travelled from Iraq to Turkey, and had to cross the sea by boat to get to the coast of Greece. He and his family had planned to apply for Asylum in Germany, but at the time, the country had stopped accepting refugees. Consequently, Rayan spent 3 months in a refugee camp in Greece, the Skaramangas Camp, home to 3,000 refugees, half of which are children.

In the Skaramangas camp, Rayan was introduced to Play for Peace. The program inspired him to such an extent, that he became a trainer for Play for Peace, and even after he had moved from the camp to live in an apartment in Athens, he traveled to the camp every week to work with the youth there.

“The Play for Peace program helped me to discover myself,” said Rayan. “I did not know much about myself in terms of peace. But because of the program, I discovered that I could help others, even though I also needed help myself. I learned that I can help people affected by war and poverty in the simplest ways: with games and entertainment to make them smile."

After a year and a half of living in Greece, Rayan and his family were assigned Asylum in the Netherlands, and came to live in a refugee camp in a small town in the North of the Netherlands, called Musselkanaal. In the camp, Rayan received support from Roel Knijnenbrug, who works for the National Refugee Organization in the Netherlands, and coordinates activities to help refugees become more independent. Rayan assisted Roel with office activities in the refugee camp, and during this time, the two discussed Rayan’s experiences in Greece and the work he had been doing with Play for Peace. The refugee camp in Musselkanaal has a population of about 400 people, and about a third of its inhabitants are under 18 years old. At the time, no specific activities were organized to accommodate this large group of vulnerable children and adolescents. To fill this gap, Roel and Rayan decided to organize a Play for Peace session within the camp.

“The first time we did the Play for Peace session, we presented it as a joyous festivity,” Roel recalls. “The event blew me away, as I had not imagined it would be such a success, with over 60 children joining in to play.’’ Due to this great success, the Play for Peace program was implemented as a regular activity within the camp, with sessions currently running twice a week. The group of children is very diverse, crossing cultural and social boundaries. Children from diverse geographic backgrounds, including Iraq, Syria, and Russia, come together to play. Girls and boys mix and the older children now lead the groups and play with the younger children. Rayan is living in his own apartment close to Musselkanaal, and is studying for exams to acquire the residence permit for the Netherlands. He travels to the refugee camp twice a week to lead the Play Sessions, with a team of 10 other youths.

“The children are always smiling and enthusiastic when we play,” said Rayan. “One of the most beautiful aspects, I think, is that it makes them feel at peace. They forget about their current troubles, what they have been through and about war. For a bit they just play."

On March 8, Rayan’s work was rewarded, when he and his team won the second place of the Volunteer prize of Stadskanaal, a neighboring city to Musselkanaal, which gives out a yearly prize dedicated to the best volunteering initiative in the region. The team received 250 euros to spend on anything of preference. Roel was the one who nominated Rayan for the Volunteer prize.

“Rayan has no idea what he is doing for these young people at the camp, many of whom have been through terrible things,” said Roel. “When the children know that Rayan is coming, they wait in rows outside of the room. The joy on their faces when they are playing is incredible."

One of the aspects Roel finds very valuable about Play for Peace is that the sessions are carried out by trainers who live in the refugee camp themselves. “It is beautiful that this is being done by and for the young people here. Who understands these children better than those from within their own community?” Rayan is very happy to have won second place of the Volunteer prize and might spend the money that he and his team earned on materials or on T-shirts for the team. Rayan and Roel agree that they would like to see PFP implemented in many other camps in the Netherlands. One of the big challenges is that more PFP trainers and materials are needed, as there are currently not enough volunteers to help scale up the program. Furthermore, more youth have to be trained to fill up the gaps if one of the trainers becomes unavailable, as the population of the camp changes frequently, and people leave once they are assigned housing.

For Rayan himself, there might be a time when he can no longer continue volunteering in Musselkanaal. Rayan aspires to go to university after receiving his residence permit, and either wants to become a lawyer, which would allow him to help others, or train as a sports journalist, as he would greatly enjoy interviewing famous soccer players. Play for Peace aims to continue to expand the work in refugee camps and train more youth like Rayan, to help children, through the joy of play, experience valuable moments of peace.