• Opinion
  • November 14, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Refugee kids need more than food and shelter. This parenting program helps

Opinion: Graduate parents are paid to help new parents in this innovative approach

This piece was written Ghassan Issa, General Coordinator of the Arab Resource Collective (ARC) and Director, Arab Network for Early Childhood Care and Development (ANECD). It also appears in our early childhood newsfeed


Recent upheavals in the Arab region, particularly the war in Syria, have led to millions of people taking refuge in neighbouring countries or being internally displaced.

The violent immigration process is a stressful experience. Refugees are vulnerable: circumstances in their home country are painful, and their stay in refugee camps drags on, with high levels of endemic violence and difficult living conditions.

The humanitarian services approach prioritises urgent needs like shelter, food and medical services; beyond these, families typically have no sustained support to provide appropriate care for the development of their young children.

            • For more like this, see our early childhood newsfeed 

To address this gap, the Arab Resource Collective developed the Health, Early learning and Protection Parenting Programme (HEPPP), delivered to refugees, internally-displaced people and their host communities. The program is particularly innovative for humanitarian settings. Here’s why.

The program is innovative for humanitarian settings

First, it adopts the latest principles of child ecology, developmental psychology and children’s rights, including that the child’s physical, emotional, cognitive, social and other capacities develop as an interrelated whole.

Second, it is based on good practices of inclusion and the role of play in learning.

Third, it adopts a holistic, integrated and inclusive approach to early childhood care and development. It covers health, nutrition, early learning, social welfare and physical protection in a coherent and interactive way.

It does so while addressing the continuum of the child’s age from before birth to six years.

And, it integrates the strategic objectives of early detection, early intervention and early stimulation.

Finally, it deals with the challenges of engaging fathers and mothers as couples together as primary caregivers and educators. It also addresses the mental health and psychosocial support needs of parents as primary caregivers.

The developing refugee crisis

A team of early childhood experts, academics and practitioners from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon developed the HEPPP, and it consists of a structured set of 15 weekly interactive training sessions, lasting two to three hours each. Fathers and mothers follow the training together, as a family unit with their children.

The subjects of the sessions are pregnancy; breastfeeding; balanced nutrition; nutrition; hygiene; safety; infections and disease; equity and inclusion; communication between parents; communication with peers; positive behaviour; “every child has intelligence — what is your child’s?”; play; critical thinking, learning and inquiry-based skills; and nursery, kindergarten and school readiness.

The developing refugee crisis in the region made clear the need to adapt the program for parents who are refugees, internally displaced or vulnerable people in host communities.

ARC added five more sessions to integrate an element of psychosocial care and support for the caregivers, covering mental health and well-being, depression, grief, psychosomatic disorders and violence.

Another change to reflect operating in the refugee context was opening the program to single parents and extended family members acting as caregivers. When both fathers and mothers are available, engaging them equally as couples has been a challenge given the dominant culture, yet it is proving to be feasible and to enhance positive patterns in responsive parenting as well as gender equity practices.

Overall, the sessions provide a framework of concepts, skills and exercises to enhance parents’ knowledge about the importance of the early years, to nurture a holistic and inclusive approach towards raising children and to develop good practice in health, nutrition, early learning and risk management.

Graduated parents training more parents increased the numbers of beneficiaries and decreased the unit cost exponentially

The sessions also promote positive caregiving practices; minimise stress and avoid violence; improve the community’s impact on children’s health, education and safety; and build parents’ capacity to become role models and support other children.

After the first phase, the HEPPP was extended to increase its outreach with a parent-to-parent approach by engaging selected graduate couples (sanad, an Arabic term that translates as supporter and sustainer) into paid work.

These graduate couples were given additional training on facilitation and were left with a sense of worth — as well as a modest income. Involvement of graduated parents in training more parents increased the numbers of beneficiaries and decreased the unit cost exponentially after several rounds of implementation.

It is now being implemented in Lebanon and Jordan with Syrian and Palestinian refugees

HEPPP is now being implemented in Lebanon and Jordan with Syrian and Palestinian refugees from Syria and parents from underprivileged Lebanese and Jordanian host communities, who are being made increasingly vulnerable by the influx of refugees.

Evaluation is an integral part of this process, and it is being carried out through a pre- and post-effectiveness study consisting of direct quantitative interviews and qualitative focus group discussions. The aim is to test the effectiveness of the project by measuring the extent to which the knowledge, attitudes and practices of the caregivers participating are positively affected. — Ghassan Issa

(Picture credit: Flickr/MaximilianV)

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