ISTANBUL –– Many Syrian families fleeing war in their homeland and stranded in Turkey are desperate to provide a sense of normalcy for their children despite the chaos and upheaval of war, said the head of an emergency mission of the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services.

syriaSyrian children are seen at the Turkish border fence as gunfire is exchanged between members of the Free Syrian Army and armed Kurds of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in northern Syria Nov. 25. (CNS photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)“Both fathers and mothers’ biggest concern (is) that their children are scared and have seen terrible things … and need something to do,” Jennifer Poidatz, head of the agency’s Syria emergency response team, told Catholic News Service. Poidatz was in Turkey to launch a million-dollar project focused in part on providing hundreds of Syrian refugee children with urgently needed social outlets.

Poidatz said assessments carried out in November showed that a primary concern of refugee parents on the border was that their uprooted and troubled children were spending long hours in cramped and crowded temporary homes with nothing to do.

“Kids are withdrawn and not sleeping. This is what parents are concerned about,” said Poidatz. She said that, in response, CRS was working to establish child-friendly spaces where the children can spend time with each other under the guidance of trained staff and volunteers at facilities providing social activities, including art, theater, dance, sports, reading and games.

“Parents want the best for their kids. Despite having to leave their country, they want normalcy and safety” for children “who need a safe place to go,” Poidatz told CNS Nov. 24 from Turkey’s Hatay province, which borders Syria.

CRS’s announcement of the child-friendly spaces coincided with the publication in a newspaper of the results of a Turkish university psychological survey showing that thousands of Syrian refugee children in the country were facing “severe psychological problems.”

“This is threatening for the children’s future,” Bahcesehir University’s Serap Ozer — who was involved in the survey’s fieldwork — told Hurriyet Daily News. The English-language paper put the overall number of Syrian refugee children now in Turkey at 60,000.

Poidatz described the child-friendly spaces as “a starting point” toward addressing the survey’s findings.

“They are based on the expressed desire of parents and will provide a safe, social environment, with recreational and education activities for children that will help them to adapt to their new environment. There will be basic activities to address fear, anger, etc. … We are also working on linkages for professional care through referral,” Poidatz said.

War between government loyalists and rebels in Syria has sent an estimated 430,000 refugees to bordering countries, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which estimates that about 200,000 are in Turkey, mostly along the 560-mile Turkish-Syrian frontier.

Turkey’s government has set up relief camps with shelter, food, health and limited education services for about 120,000 of these refugees, but UNHCR reports that as many as 80,000 more refugees live in urban areas around the camps or with relatives nearby and are not receiving this government aid.

Poidatz said the CRS project would focus on these urban areas which are not benefiting from the relief camps because they are the most vulnerable. She said she expected four child-friendly spaces to be operational by the end of December in the border province of Kilis, which she said CRS would need more funding to maintain in the long term. The spaces were being facilitated by the local Turkish authorities and managed by Turkey’s International Blue Crescent, she said.

As part of the same project, Poidatz said CRS is setting up a cash-transfer system through which 2,600 of Kilis’ most vulnerable families will soon receive $150 to purchase children’s clothing, blankets, heating materials, carpets and other items to better prepare for the winter.

She said CRS and its partner, Caritas Turkey, were looking into other possible relief projects for the hundreds of Syrians trapped in the designated no man’s land between Turkey and Syria. Those refugees are suffering from a lack of the most basic needs, including sanitation and children’s education.

“The needs are massive. The hygiene and sanitation conditions are horrible, and if there are latrines, they are not being maintained,” said Poidatz. “Children need to go to school,” she continued, citing “the lack of access to formal and informal education” for the thousands refugee children living outside the Turkish relief camps.

She said CRS and its local partners were searching for resources to address such pressing issues.

“The needs are huge,” she said, “but funding is hard to come by.”