Children on the run also like to play rashly

Like other children, children in shelters like to play, take ballet lessons or go to the karate club. Unfortunately, that is not so obvious, according to research.

Like other children, children in shelters like to play, take ballet lessons or go to the karate club. Unfortunately, that is not so obvious, according to research.

kThose on the run are children just like other children, but they live in special circumstances. In Flanders, every third resident in an asylum reception center is younger than eighteen. These children long for peace and routine, but also want to be able to enjoy their free time without thinking.

How do children on the run experience their free time inside and outside a reception center? In the three-year study ‘Onderweg’, we listened to the young immigrants themselves. We settled in two reception centers in the province of Antwerp and talked to 34 children between the ages of six and twelve from sixteen different countries.

Right to leisure

Leisure contributes to children’s health and well-being and can be an engine for resilience. The right to leisure is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31 states that children have the right to rest, play and leisure and to participate fully in cultural and artistic life.

Although in principle this also applies to young newcomers, participation in informal or organized leisure activities is in practice not a matter of course for them.

Informal leisure in the shelter

Children staying in a reception center spend a significant part of their free time within the walls of this center. They share a wide range of experiences that range from seeking tranquility to finding a challenge.

Saran, Salem and Rafid show us this during a first visit to “their” center. With a tablet, they take pictures of things they like to do. Outside, they play football, climb on play equipment, on a fence or in a tree. Inside, they show a play area, living areas and places where they are not allowed to play, such as the stairwell, an enclosed computer room and a fitness room.

Saran’s friend tells how he snuck into the gym with his father’s badge. He knows very well that it really should not be. Nikita points to the swing as her favorite spot in the center. ‘It’s quiet and you can hear the wind,’ she says. She does not find that peace elsewhere.

All children look for that alternation between rest and challenge in their free time, but in a reception center the possibilities are limited. The infrastructure is often not intended for children. They share busy living and play areas with other residents. There are few private and quiet rooms.

“Nikita points to the swing as her favorite spot in the center.”

The children, like the other residents, have to take into account the rules about space use, but they do not have much to say about the rules. To borrow materials, they need to have a badge that they do not always get.

Within these limits, counselors are engaged and children show resilience and creativity. They do not always have control over their own leisure time and collide with each other and with other residents. Often, children resolve these conflicts themselves by negotiating.

Organized leisure in the reception center

At most shelters, counselors organize activities on Wednesdays. Sometimes volunteers come to read, or a neighboring organization offers a sports activity. For children, these moments are to look forward to. They turn to the counselors and the volunteers as playmates, confidants and anchor figures.

They are enthusiastic about the range of crafts and the organized games in the center. At the same time, they long for a broader and more varied offer that takes into account their individual interests and their age. On weekends, with very free time available, they experience the limited presence of tutors and activities as a shortage.

Outside the center walls

Children also long for more personal organized leisure activities outside the walls of the shelter. Saran, Rafid and Salem play football in a nearby club. Salem forgets his worries there, but Rafid prefers to go to drawing school, and Saran actually wants to take karate classes. Other children also talk about their preferences. Belinha loves gymnastics. Maysa says that she would like to go to ballet school and that she is rehearsing for the TV show ‘The Voice’.

“Saran, Rafid and Salem play football at a club nearby.”

Realizing these desires and desires in practice is not a matter of course. The leisure offer in Flanders is organized as a ‘market’, where children and their families can browse around in search of the offer that they find interesting and feasible.

Such a market is not always accessible to families living in shelters. As soon as the children and their families leave the reception center, they encounter barriers and limitations that have also been identified in other research: language barriers, mobility problems, financial constraints, bullying behavior, or insufficient attachment to their own culture.

Depending on goodwill

If children on the run still find coherence with organized leisure, it is often due to the creativity and flexibility of individual initiatives. During the investigation, a football club hands out bicycles, distributes the registration fee and picks up children at the reception center during away matches.

The reception centers also work purposefully with leisure organizations and guide parents and families in their search for an offer. During the holidays, children from a reception center are entitled to a discount on camp.

Yet these initiatives remain too fragmented and dependent on the goodwill of individual organizations and individuals. Reception centers and leisure actors often look for solutions without being able to count on structural support.

Insight into the living environment

There is therefore still work to be done to make collective asylum care child- and family-friendly and to anchor the right to leisure, rest and play sufficiently in practical and political choices. We see different options based on a generous policy.

‘There is still work to be done to make collective asylum child-friendly.’

Initially, we argue for more insight into the living environment for children in asylum reception. That insight can shatter the obvious. For example, the expectation that children ‘can play anywhere’ is questioned when it becomes clear that it sometimes leads to clashes with other residents. Children often find themselves playing stimuli and challenges, but when the free space is used by so many different people, they need a framework.

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More collaboration

Secondly, we argue for more structural cooperation. No professional or organization can solve the need for leisure alone. In local collaborations, the insights of different organizations can provide a richer leisure experience for children on the run.

For example, conversations between a reception center and a local network of leisure activities ensured that children were picked up from the reception center to go to the playground activities during the holidays. Otherwise, they could not participate.

‘Advocacy representatives can make a difference.’

Thirdly, we are in favor of formally appointed advocates for refugee children in various organizations. Within the centers, children’s perspectives are often overshadowed by other priorities. Outside the reception centers, leisure organizations are not always aware of the needs of this group. Advocates can make a difference. They monitor children’s interests in their own organization, have insight into feasible answers and are indispensable in working with other partners.

When are we satisfied?

Making leisure time possible for all children and young people is a balancing act for everyone involved. The search lies in the question of how to realize an offer that is interesting for a heterogeneous group of children. Once that offer is available, the question arises how you can take into account the needs and requirements of a particular target group.

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© Karol Grygoruk

Children on the run are such a specific target group. Their experience of leisure time is not so different from that of other children, but they live in special conditions. In order to adapt the leisure offer to those conditions, counselors in reception centers and leisure organizations must have more space and resources to test their practice in relation to children’s living environment.

Saran for karate class?

What does this mean for the children themselves? Should we systematically look outside the walls of the shelter for karate lessons for Saran and a ballet school for Maysa?

Not necessary. Children accept that they can not do everything they want. But could we not try something more?

Imagine that the diverse leisure needs stimulate us to make what is difficult still possible. Imagine if counselors would notice less boredom, unrest, and conflict in a shelter. Imagine that a local partnership naturally tests its choices against this group of children.

Then the reception of children on the run would be much more child-friendly.

This article was previously published on Social.Net

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