12/07/2015 03:00 EST | Updated 12/07/2016 05:12 EST

A Look Inside A Wayside Playroom For Syrian Refugee Children

As Canada prepares to welcome Syrian refugees, there are still thousands of families on the long road to unknown destinations. Robert Neufeld has just returned from Serbia, where he met with many of these families.

It was a day that seemed tailor-made to break your heart.

Under a cloudy sky, with a brisk, biting wind that blew from the north across the flatlands of northwestern Serbia, a team from World Vision arrived at an auto service centre near the village of Adaševci in the early morning hours. In the pale sunlight, they unloaded their supplies and made their way across the muddy parking lot into a crumbling motel building.

Here, in this unassuming spot, World Vision would use toys, drawings and games to brighten the lives of refugee children fleeing across Europe to find safety in new homelands. This was the first day of operations for a new child-friendly space in Adaševci.

Getting ready for the children

Inside one of the motel's storage rooms, workers had spent the past few days painting walls a cheery yellow. But there had been precious little else done to make it look welcoming for children. The World Vision team, led by Child Protection Specialist Weihui Wang, quickly swung into action.


Photo: World Vision

Within 90 minutes, floors were swept, play areas and toys set up, along with changing tables stocked with diapers and baby supplies. Curtains were hung and chairs placed in a special, cordoned off section of the room to allow mothers to breastfeed their children in comfort and privacy.

Now there was just one thing missing: the children. Only a few buses carrying refugees had stopped that morning at Adaševci; highlighting the changing nature of Europe's refugee crisis. The men, women and children huddled against the buses to brave the cold air.


Photo: World Vision

Despite the chilly temperatures, many used hoses from a nearby water truck to wash the caked-on mud from their shoes or boots. Under these conditions, the World Vision team wondered how many parents would take the time to allow their children to use the child-friendly space.

They needn't have worried.

On oasis of play

From the moment the doors opened, children and their families swarmed the space, almost overwhelming the efforts of World Vision's staff to find everyone a toy to play with.


Photo: World Vision

The six staff members were kept busy offering toys and games for the children, supervising changing tables and keeping up the flow of baby supplies. They provided cups of tea for parents who watched their children building towers from blocks, cooking up imaginary meals in the toy kitchen and, above all, drawing and colouring.


Photo: World Vision

Five-year old Eliash was among those happily drawing with a combination of crayons and chalk as activity swirled around him. His mother, Mona, gratefully accepted a cup of tea and watched as Eliash and his older brother competed to draw the best picture.


Photo: World Vision

The mother was reluctant to talk, explaining that her family had fled from Iraq, but declining to answer any further questions about their journey. Eliash paused to show his mother his drawing. She smiled with joy as she said the name beloved by children around the world: "Spongebob Squarepants!"

A rare and precious gift

On a brief break, World Vision's Weihui Wang paused amid the cars in the motel's muddy parking lot as she explained what the day's big turnout at the child-friendly space had meant to her.

"I was overwhelmed with emotions," she said. "I saw that the children really wanted to come in and play and the parents really wanted to give them a chance to do something normal that they can't do on their journey. Nothing can describe that feeling, that you can bring such joy to children during a really difficult journey."

Wei bit her lip, swallowed and said "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be such a crybaby." I have to be honest. I was choked up myself.

For the past five years, many of us around the world have cried for Syrian children, as they've trudged their way out of the hell that their homes have become. The chance to shed tears over something beautiful -- children playing and laughing together in a bright yellow room full of toys -- was indeed a rare and precious gift.


Photo: World Vision


Canada's Response To Syria Refugee Crisis Since 2011