By Violet Ikong
Millions of Sudanese children caught in the ongoing conflict that began on April 15 between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces have been exposed to violent attacks, and many are now displaced and seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimate that over 3 million Sudanese children are displaced within Sudan and across its international borders. Most of these children are Unaccompanied and Separated Children (UASC), meaning they fled conflicts without their parents or family members.
In Sudan, some UASC lost their parents in the heat of the conflict, while others got separated from their parents while trying to escape. According to Hamid Umar, a humanitarian worker from Chad, “During conflicts, people run in different directions to seek safety, and that includes borders that lead to nearby countries. During that process, children could get separated from their parents.”
Eventually many children who flee west find themselves in Adré, a town located on the border with eastern Chad. By mid-September, the area hosted 150,000 Sudanese refugees, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. That number includes many Unaccompanied and Separated Children.
Life in the camp
“It’s hard to use just one word to describe the situation for children in the camps because they don’t have quality of life. They lack access to basic needs like food, shelter, education, and medical services,” said Nadia Nabhan, a humanitarian aid worker with Helping Kids Round First (HKRF), an American nonprofit.
Another humanitarian aid worker named Umar, this time from Action Pour La Protection Des Droits De L’enfant (APDE), a child-focused nonprofit in Chad, told Amjambo, “Refugee camps in Adré … are are not good enough for children to stay because children need conducive environments to live and grow.”The plight of Sudanese refugee UASC in the camps is largely ignored by the international media, however that has not stopped many organizations and individuals from stepping up to do what they can to assuage the suffering of children.
Bringing relief to refugee children
The children told them that many of them are UASC, and are scared of their new environment.
“Each time we speak with the Unaccompanied and Separated Children, we see in their eyes how scared they are, living in an unknown environment without their parents,” Umar said. “We try to comfort them and assure them that we are with them, so they don’t need to be afraid.”
The organization tries to reunite the children with their parents, or other family members who may be in a camp in Adré, by sharing information with other aid agencies, which check their databases. Sometimes the children are lucky and are united with a family member.
However, family is not always the solution to the problem. Severe hunger or trauma drives some parents to extreme actions. “Sometimes we see children, including babies, that have been left behind by their parents in the camp. We pick up such children, take care of them, and get them attached to a family that can cater to them,” Umar said.
So far, APDE has provided support, including clothes, shoes, and food to over 3,000 refugee children living in camps.
Poverty and hunger
“It was so difficult and heartbreaking,” Nabhan said. “We took time to speak with the children in the camp and asked them what we could do for them. The first thing they asked for was food.”
Aid agencies like the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Food Programme (WFP) provide food support to the refugees, but the food is never enough because of funding shortages, causing many of the children to go hungry most days
While APDE is sometimes able to provide food, the organization lacks funding to effectively feed many children, so they partner with foreign organizations and donors to help in the distribution of food in the camp.
“We do not have the resources to always provide food for the children, but we have some partners from countries like America who support food, and we take part in the distribution,” Umar said.
Mental health support
“Sometimes camp officials want to take advantage of girls in the camp in exchange for food and other basic items that they require. We bring girls together, educate them about their rights, and the camp’s guidelines, to let them understand that no camp official has the right to make them give in to sex [in order to] get aid food and items,” Umar said.
The majority of young children ages 8 or younger who live in refugee camps worldwide – an estimated 80%, according to a 2020 study published in the National Library of Medicine – suffer from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders, and behavioral challenges.
Sudan’s conflict has now lasted over eight months. With no end in sight for the war, many more children are at risk of being displaced in the coming weeks and months. In the face of extreme need for mental health services, APDE and HKRF are working together to establish a mental health facility for refugees in Adré, where old and young refugees can seek mental health counseling and healing from conflict-related trauma.
“Yes, they need food, shelter, and water, but they [refugees] kept talking about mental health counseling, too, when we spoke with them in the camp. And this is not just for adults; children need healing too. So we have plans to build a mental health clinic in the camp to address this problem,” Nabhan said.
Other organizations, among them ALIMA (The Alliance for International Medical Action), based in Dakar, Senegal, and HIAS, with international headquarters in the Maryland, in the U.S., are also increasingly focused on including mental health care as a basic need alongside food, water, medicine, and shelter for traumatized adult and child refugees.