Bringing Play to Refugee Children
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Carrie Johnson was a Playworks Program Coordinator in Oakland, CA 2008-2010. Since then, she has taken her passion for play to Egypt, where she will host a Refugee Play Week this winter.
Two months after finishing my AmeriCorps service with Playworks, I moved to Egypt. I have gotten my Masters of Art in International Human Rights Law and am working as a Lawyer and English teacher for refugee children in Cairo.
I was distraught by how the low quality and rare access to play in East Oakland resembles life for refugee children in Cairo, Egypt. Many of these kids stay inside for days at a time and only go outside to fetch groceries. There is a huge security threat to these kids, as they don't speak the local language (Arabic), they don't have consistent family involvement/protection (many lost their parents while escaping their home country), and there are few accessible outdoor, green, cost-free, safe places for them to use. Does this sound familiar?
I was inspired by the Playworks vision "that one day, every child in America will have access to safe, healthy play every day. Play creates essential opportunities for children to explore their imaginations, to connect with other people and to stretch and grow physically, emotionally and socially." Oh, do refugee children need JUST that! So, this past Spring, I organized a Refugee Play Day program and tweaked this ideal for children beyond America's borders. I invited a group of refugee girls to participate in a day full of activities including: icebreakers, tag games, yoga, dance, capoeira and a healthy lunch! The American University in Cairo opened is state-of-the-art sports complex to us, and helped us rent a 55-passenger bus to transport the girls in luxury-style to the campus; each girl also received a brown-bag breakfast to energize for the day!
Needless to say, the girls had a great time. The girls were excited to be on a world-renowned university campus, and inspired by the fact that the event was created JUST for them, with no strings attached. Many of them had never played sports in their life! One participant from the conservative country of Somalia, where girls rarely leave their house more than a handful of times each year (due to militia violence and high occurrence of rape), arrived to the bus wearing a floor-length dress and long, draping head-covering. Of course, with the power of play, her attire didn't hold her back from having fun; in fact, she had the HIGHEST capoeira kick, and was the best dancer of the group! At the end of the day, the dance instructor was so impressed with the Somali girl's dance skills, that she invited her to attend classes at her private studio for free!
The Refugee Play Day was a huge success, and I've been planning for ways to continue similar events on a regular basis here in Egypt. This first Refugee Play Day reached girls from more than a half-dozen countries in one day: Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Uganda, Nigeria and Sudan. A second Refugee Play Day is scheduled to happen for refugee boys at the end of November 2012, with a co-ed Refugee Play Week in the plans for winter 2012. The goal is to eventually begin Refugee Sports Leagues to establish a permanent circuit of play for the refugee community in Cairo.