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Why Parenting In A Refugee Camp Can Be So Tough

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The temperature hit 35 degrees Celsius at an event to mark World Refugee Day in downtown Toronto this week. There was no breeze, no shade.

Humanitarian workers sweltered in the booths they'd set up, to raise awareness for the world's 65 million refugees. Organizers had provided tent-like covers, and everyone crowded underneath to stay out of the sun. But the heat was relentless.

In the World Vision tent, Lindsay Gladding worked hard to entertain her eight-year-old son William, who had come along for the day. As Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs team leader for World Vision Canada, Lindsay was on hand to describe the dire needs in refugee camps and settlements.

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William tries World Vision's 360 video, about a 13-year-old Syrian refugee boy named Ali. All photos World Vision

For a time, William was contented with the toys and activities World Vision staff had brought. But after an hour, he was bored, hungry -- and melting in the heat. And he let his mother know it!

I watched how creatively Lindsay worked to care for her son in a cramped, stifling space with very few resources available. I thought of all the refugee mothers who are doing the same. Not just for a few hours, but for months or years at a time.

Parenting empty handed

Lindsay has just returned from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where she spent five days visiting families living in tented refugee settlements. Back in Toronto, we found a tiny patch of shade, so I could ask Lindsay what life is like for those families.

Debbie: There's a heat warning in effect in Toronto today. How does this compare to the place you've just returned from?

Lindsay:
In the settlement I visited last week, it hit 45 degrees Celsius. In a few minutes, I'll be able to take my son to an air conditioned Subway restaurant to cool down and have a drink. But mothers in the Bekaa Valley have nowhere to take their children except for the family tent.

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Debbie: It's pretty crowded where we're sitting, in this small tent here in Nathan Phillips Square. Your son's making the best of it, even though there's not much space with all the adults. How does this compare to a family tent in Lebanon?

Lindsay: Families in the Bekaa Valley are living with up to 10 people in a tent about this size. There's no room to spread out, or to find a quiet space alone, especially at night when everyone's lying down.

Debbie: Your son is wearing shorts and a t-shirt today, like most Canadian children. What were children wearing in the refugee settlement?

Lindsay: Most children have one change of clothes at the most. If their parents grabbed winter clothing when they fled their homes -- which makes good sense if you were fleeing in winter--then that's what the children wear in summer. There just isn't anything else.

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Debbie: You use the term 'informal tented settlement' for the community you visited last week. What's the difference between this and a refugee camp?

Lindsay: The Bekaa Valley is an agricultural region in Lebanon. Syrian seasonal migrant workers used to come here every year, and a few tents were set up to accommodate them.

When things got bad in Syria, fathers started bringing their families with them. Some just stayed, and more families came. They've built their own shelters out of found materials. They pay on average the equivalent of $775 Canadian a year in rent for the land, and without legal work even this modest amount means mounting debt for Syrian families.

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Debbie: We got to see a video of children in the settlement you visited last week. They were smiling, even laughing, and seemed very happy. How are the children when the cameras are switched off?

Lindsay: They're incredibly bored. They just wander around. So few of them are in school in Lebanon, because they've fallen behind, and the cost of transportation and books is too far out of reach.

Lebanese school is conducted in Arabic, English and French, not just Arabic as it was in Syria. Older children don't have much chance of catching up, and are often bullied by the younger kids when they try to go to school. So they just walk around the settlement all day.

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Debbie: What's this like for the mothers? How are they able to parent the kids?

Lindsay: The moms say the children don't listen. Parenting is so hard when you've got no incentives to offer. They can't impose consequences as there's nothing left to take away. There is little to entertain them and without the structure that school provides children feel lost and insecure. That feeds into their behaviour during the day.

Some of the children are able to participate in what we call "psychosocial support," meaning they get help talking through their experiences so they can gradually heal. They've even formed a children's council, and are learning to speak up for themselves, giving their views on how things are to be run in the community.

I would love to see all children have this kind of opportunity. The difference that it makes in their lives in immeasurable.

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Debbie: Is there anything hopeful about life in these tented settlements?

Lindsay: Some mothers feel grateful that they're still alive and at least have their children with them. One mother, who has been raising her children in this tented settlement for the past four years, said she wished they had stayed behind in Syria. She said it would be better to have died than to be living as they are.

Debbie: What kind of hope do families have that things will change?

Lindsay: They do hope that peace will come, so they can go home. For now, the one really bright spot is World Vision's Early Childhood Education classes, for children three to six years old.

Many of these children were born as refugees, or came to Lebanon as babies. The hope is to get the youngest children ready to enter school in Lebanon, so the children are learning English and basic literacy and numeracy skills in preparation.

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It's so wonderful to see how the children flourish in this "child-friendly space," as we call it. They're not bored there, that's for sure. And it's no coincidence that most of the children there want to be teachers when they grow up.

This could be the highlight of their lives right now, having something to actually aim toward. That's why it's so important that Canada keep the centre open, and offer this kind of chance to other refugee children. It helps preserve futures.

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A mother gently coaxes her son to attend the first week of early childhood education classes, taking place inside the tent.

Debbie: What would you like Canada's mothers to know about what Syrian mothers need for their children?

Lindsay: First and foremost, their children need peace. And just as importantly, their children need a chance to keep up with their education. Education is everything for Syrian families. These children will need to help rebuild Syria after the war ends. They need to be ready.

Read why education should be considered a life-saving intervention

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