Specialised support for children with disabilities in refugee camps, Northern Iraq

Context: Conflict, refugee camp


  • Providing specialised support for children with disabilities who are otherwise unable to access services


Why this project?

The partner NGO noticed that no one in the refugee camp was providing services for children with disabilities, meaning that they were missing out on opportunities to play and learn with other children and receive appropriate developmental support.


The project

The Special Needs Unit employs a specialist disability worker and support worker to provide one-to-one tailored support sessions for identified children with disabilities. Each child attends two to three sessions of one hour per week. The programme set out to target 15 children with special needs, enabling them to participate in activities facilitated by two staff trained in working with children with special needs.

Children were initially identified and referred because the NGO itself carried out a house-to-house assessment in the refugee camp which identified the needs of families and located vulnerable children, meaning that staff were aware of where children with disabilities were living and were able to invite them to the special needs unit when it opened. So far the team have worked with children aged 4-14 with disabilities including autism, learning difficulties, speech, hearing and visual impairments, behavioural and emotional difficulties.

After a child is referred, the team carries out a family visit and gathers more information on the family, and uses pilot sessions with the child to assess the case and determine what needs to be done. They then put in place a plan, making it clear to parents from the start what will be done. Additionally, the team gives advice to parents about how to work with their child at home.


If at all possible, children are integrated into other mainstream child-focused programmes in the camp, such as child friendly spaces. The team give support and advice for how to support the child in these sessions and also have regular contact with families. Sometimes it is difficult for families to provide the educational toys needed by the children, and the Special Needs Unit will loan these to the families.



In addition to pre-existing disabilities, the team often see cases of children having severe reactions to the crisis and experiences they have been through in the war, particularly in behavioural difficulties and speech problems. Because the team spend time with the child and their family and are able to give dedicated support, they have seen changes in these children as they become better able to cope with their experiences.

“There was a fire at the transit camp [where the family initially stayed] and since then my son was afraid. He would hide, show fear all the time, say he was afraid, and not play with other children. We tried to go to another CFS but they couldn’t cope with him and get him involved. We were told that he had a developmental disorder. But then we came to STEP and he spent some time with the special needs team… They said that he didn’t have a disorder, but was affected [by his experiences]. He is now able to mix with other children and he will play with his sister again. He has stopped saying he’s afraid and he sleeps through the night.

Mother, Refugee Camp


Lessons Learned

While the team is having a postive impact on the children they are working with, it would be useful to have a partnership with a doctor or specialist who is able to diagnose cases.

It would also be good to develop ways of supporting parents of children with special needs, for example through support groups, since parents often struggle to care for children and can benefit from sharing their experience with others.

This programme was delivered in partnership with Tear Netherlands

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