By Mark Choonoo, UNICEF’s Chief of Field Office in Aleppo, Syria.
Aleppo, 5 February 2015 – The freezing hall was warmed up by the excitement and happy giggling of more than 300 children and about 150 women as I briefly joined my UNICEF colleagues during a Child Health Day in Aleppo, one of Syria’s most conflict battered city.
UNICEF has embarked on community mobilisation to reach communities with vital information on key behavioural practices such as hygiene and sanitation, exclusive breastfeeding and infant young feeding. Positive behaviours will help mitigate the health risk on children.
At this session, the 23 mobilisers engaged mothers, observers and the children in music, dance, theatre and discussion on the key health issues to watch out during cold months. “I have an important role to play” said one of the mothers carrying her six months old baby. She encouraged her seven year old to listen to the discussion. Key messages were passed on through clowns, giant fluffy dogs, face painted kittens and Papa Noel who was the highlight.
It was amazing to be part of the positive energy at a time when the conflict seems to carry on with no end. Dr Esraa Khalaf, UNICEF’s Health Officer said threats to child health is the biggest concern among these poor communities, now displaced by conflict.
For the children, it was an opportunity to join together to listen to UNICEF’s partners and their community mobilisers spread messages on good hygiene practices as well as prevention of illness.
Ms Maysoun Omar who leads UNICEF’s team of 23 community mobilisers said that getting services to the most vulnerable while ensuring dignity and accountability is an important, though challenging, part of UNICEF’s vital work.
In a crisis like Syria, where humanitarian actors have been engaged in assistance activities for the past 4 years, it is easy to lose the face of the end user in the rush to support the most vulnerable.
Children’s rights to the services that UNICEF delivers with partners and the government is the key message. This is important in building trust in a conflict-ridden area where suspicion is rife. The interaction between UNICEF and the communities also helps generate vital feedback to improve UNICEF’s work and allow the opinions of children and parents to be heard by those who plan UNICEF’s interventions.
As winter deepens, so does the conflict. Local empowerment and building resilience are the key steps as the seasons turn in this crisis. Sessions such as this today help equip communities with information that is useful to mitigate health threats through positive behavioural practices.