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By Ayberk Yurtsever

©UNICEF/Turkey-2014/Yurtsever

ANKARA, Turkey, November 2014 – In the outskirts of Turkey’s capital, Turkish and Syrian children came together in meeting rooms usually reserved for politicians, academics, businessmen and NGOs.

Their discussion was no less important. Issues included the Syrian humanitarian crisis, the response to this year’s Soma mining disaster and the 2011 earthquake in Van.

200 Turkish children from 81 cities, Syrian children and children from Soma, where 301 miners lost their lives in a mine disaster last year, participated in this XVth National Children Forum organized under the co-operation of the Ministry of Family and Social Policies and UNICEF Turkey.

Hands were raised and lowered offering original recommendations and opinions. On the Syrian crisis, one suggestion was unanimously accepted: “Explaining children’s rights to Syrian children”, whereas İsmet Yapar, a Child Representative from Hatay, came up with: “Including Syrian children in Turkish local Child Rights committees”.

Further recommendations came one after another: organizing festivals, exhibitions and tours for Syrian children; establishing pen-friendships among children of Syria and Turkey; informing the public through short films to be broadcasted via media; eliminating language barriers.

Hüma Ok, a 9 year old Child Representative from Nevşehir, took the floor with a poem: “I do not work / I am still too young / When the time comes / I will work hard.”

Mostafa’s story

Unfortunately, not every child can enjoy his right to start working at a suitable age. One of those children is Mostafa al Nashed, from Aleppo. Mostafa, 16, was one of 20 Syrian children who participated in the Forum. He has been living in Şanlıurfa with his family for nearly two years. He is a child who needs to both work and study. While attending a school allocated for Syrian children during daytime, he works at a patisserie at night. He gets only 5-6 hours’ sleep. He knows his rights and rattles them off without hesitation when asked — right to life, right to protection, right to education!

The Children from Soma and Van

In another meeting hall, the mine disaster in Soma was discussed by another group. None of them hesitated to express their opinions and make recommendations: Provide psychological support to people influenced by Soma disaster; meet educational needs by establishing an association for children in Soma; establish study centers; activate sports activities for children; organize a festival with the participation of all people of Soma, as well as theater, cinema, concerts, poetry, art and dance competitions.

In yet another group, children discussed the earthquake in Van, which killed 604 people back in 2011. The children emphasized that they wish to attend to well-prepared disaster reduction activities not only for post-disaster processes, but also pre-disaster ones. In addition, they expressed that the opinions that children should be asked by public bodies and be involved officially in preparation processes.

Ayşegül Cansu, a Child Representative of Soma, spoke on behalf of her peers  to emphasize the importance of free speech for children and participation in decision-making processes. “Generally, only adults have a say in Turkey,” she said. “Mostly, feelings and thoughts of children are not taken into consideration. Therefore, these kinds of events are much useful for us. We express our thoughts better. We are brainstorming, therefore new ideas are born.”

Dream of a better world

After the presentation, all children got on stage to sing John Lennon’s song “Imagine” for the 25th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC@25).

Aşkın Su Candan, the Child Representative of Balıkesir added her own lyric — “I imagine a world where humanity becomes victorious so that people would not be slaughtered, where children can smile, and where success is appreciated”.

Voices of Syrian and Turkish children everywhere

On 20th November, in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, both Turkish and Syrian children shared their thoughts with Aysenur Islam, Minister of Family and Social Policies, Türkan Dagoglu, the Chair of the Parliament’s Child Rights Committee, Serpil Çakın, Child Ombudsperson, as well as other key decision makers.

They emphasized that the biggest contribution for advocacy on children’s rights can be only made by children themselves and, in emergency situations, their contribution and their participation should be paramount. They stressed that more than half of the population affected by natural disasters in Turkey and around the world is composed of children, and underscored how vital it is to take account of the effects of disaster interventions on children’s physical, psychological, emotional, social and mental development. Having asserted that “Free expression of thoughts must be supported and taken seriously with due respect”, the children listed their ideas and suggestions on what must be done for children both before and after disasters.

Nilgun Cavusoglu, child and youth participation officer of UNICEF Turkey, simultaneously shared these thoughts on the national TV channel TRT news magazine.

At the very same time, elected Child representatives of Turkey (Bilge from Afyon and Agit from Diyarbakır) attended the CRC@25 ceremony in New York, presented their observations on the CRC implementation in Turkey and met with Mr. Antony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF.

A long and fruitful day for children’s rights in Turkey and beyond borders, while further celebrations continue to unfold until the end of 2014.

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