Excited young faces look round a stack of brightly coloured Lego. Who can build the tallest tower? Whose will be the most colourful?
You can see similar scenes anywhere in the world, but these children are in Homs, a key battleground in the Syrian conflict.
Playing with toys like Lego and talking to the children is just one of the ways the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) – a partner to the British Red Cross – gives emotional and psychological support to children living through the war.
It brings some fun and a brief respite to children who have already seen more than most.
News stories about the Syrian conflict often focus on the politics or the fighting. Others rightly remind us of the millions of Syrians who need support.
What’s regularly missing from the coverage are the people who remain behind in Syria, delivering vital food, water, healthcare and support to thousands of Syrians every day: 11,000 Red Crescent volunteers across the country.
When civilians flee, volunteers go in
“In Homs and other Syrian cities, many volunteers work six days a week,” said Ted Tuthill of the British Red Cross.
“When other civilians flee because of fighting, SARC volunteers enter the city and won’t leave until their work is done.
“This includes providing food, psychosocial care, first aid, essential items such as blankets, and longer-term support including building wind turbines to power street lights.”
A volunteer from Aleppo described their huge role in keeping the city going: “We do many things – repairing the main water line that supplies the whole city, evacuating dead bodies, and repairing water and electricity lines.
“We also transport medication and vaccines to the needy throughout the governorate, exchange processes between parties to the conflict, and bring flour to Aleppo when the roads are cut off.”
Yet volunteers often face serious personal risks.
One Syrian volunteer shared that: “I was in charge of the medical point in Al Moadamiya. I suffered several injuries … one shrapnel wound in the wrist and three others in the chest.
“In another mission, I was shot by a sniper in the upper arm; some of that shrapnel is still in my body. Now I am returning to the first aid department.”
“My dream is to see Syria without people in need”
In peacetime, such risks may seem beyond the call of duty. However, almost every SARC volunteer has been personally touched by the conflict.
Ameera, who fled her home and received help from SARC, is one: “I needed some time rehabilitate myself, but now I want to contribute to help others. That is why I decided to join SARC as a volunteer. I started one month ago.”
A civil engineer, Ameera finds that volunteering for SARC is now one of the few ways she can use her skills. “I’m not only glad to help, I am excited to help. I know from myself how the situation is for the people here and I know what they need.
“My dream is to get Syria back like it was before the crisis, and to see Syria without people in need.”
“One day I will remember”
“In peacetime, many of Syria’s talented young people would be starting their careers and families,” TedTuthill said.
“Instead, they are using their skills – from driving trucks to counselling children and from building water tanks to knitting sweaters – to help others.”
Their stories are important to tell, especially since 53 SARC volunteers have been killed while trying to save others since the beginning of the war.
“I am not sure if I will stay in this team or not,” one volunteer shared.
“But one day I will remember these emotional events. I will not forget the looks of gratitude and admiration directed toward us. I will not forget a single day that there were volunteers who pledged their lives to save a life.”