ILIGAN CITY — “On May 23, men came to destroy my village. They set the church on fire and killed anyone they found in houses and along the streets of Marawi,” said 16-year-old Julie Ann Hamolong.
Julie Ann and her family moved from one place to another to escape the escalating violence in Marawi. They hid inside houses and behind bushes for four days, drinking rainwater to survive, until they were rescued by security forces and transported out of Marawi.
Julie Ann and her family are now staying at the Buru-un evacuation center in Iligan City, located north of Marawi. Half of the nearly 800 displaced people staying there are children.
“I’ll never forget what I experienced,” Julie Ann said. She would have started Grade 8 this year, but she had to stop attending school. “This place is filled with tears and nightmares,” she said.
“These children have lost their homes, schools, friends and even family members. They ask themselves, ‘Why is there violence?’ Children are afraid and this question is often unanswered,” said social worker Patricia Amante, who helps run the UNICEF-supported child-friendly space in the Buru-un evacuation center.
Child-friendly spaces provide a safe space where children like Julie Ann can play and receive psychosocial support to help them recover from their experiences. Trained workers supervise the children and conduct activities like arts and crafts workshops, sports, singing and information sessions on health and nutrition. Children who need counselling are referred to trained staff for special sessions.
“Child-friendly spaces facilitate access to psychosocial support, learning and healing by providing giving children the opportunity to play, laugh, learn and develop friendships with others. This helps them regain a sense of normalcy in their lives,” said Jess Far, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist. UNICEF provided tents and recreation supplies like toys, board games, sports equipment and musical instruments for child-friendly spaces.
In the first days of their displacement, children drew guns, bombs, helicopters and destroyed houses. As they continue to participate in child-friendly space activities, they become more relaxed and open up to the people around them. They now draw colorful houses, flowers and landscapes.
“Children have learned to look at life in a positive perspective despite the violence that they have experienced,” Patricia said.
For Julie Ann and many other children affected by the Marawi conflict, this helps them deal with daily life in the evacuation centers as they face the uncertainty of continued displacement.
UNICEF is on the ground in Mindanao responding to the needs of children and families affected by the Marawi conflict. Donate now to support the ongoing emergency response: https://donate.unicef.ph