They laugh and kick on swingsets, jump into colourful ball pits and line up for fairy floss. But these children aren’t at a normal theme park - they’re playing under the streets of a war zone.

The horrors of the Syrian conflict have unfolded on our screens for six years. We’ve seen innocent children bombed in their beds, trapped under siege and uprooted from everything they know.

In the middle of this warzone, the Land of Childhood is the rarest of things: a safe place for children. The theme park is a series of underground basements and tunnels where children have the relative safety they need to play and laugh again.

For Syrian children, the Land of Childhood is a surreal reminder of how things once were - and a chance to escape the chaos of war for a few hours.
This boy was one of 420,000 estimated to be living under siege in 2016. Growing up in a conflict zone often robs childre
About 200 children play at the Land of Childhood every day. It’s a chance for them to escape danger and just be children again. © UNICEF/UN041514/Alshami

A magical playground years in the making

In 2016, nearly half a million children lived in besieged areas across Syria where they often went without regular humanitarian aid, basic supplies and a sense of safety.

Frustrated with the idea of a generation of Syrians growing up without play, a group of young volunteers came up with an innovative solution: to create a place just for children to be children.
One of the creators, Yaseen, was an architecture student in Damascus. Siege forced him to leave university a year before he graduated.

“Designing this project was a relief from the war photojournalism that I started doing after the war began. I wanted to retrieve my old skills as an architect to produce something that brings happiness to children,” he explains.
Even with their limited resources, the young founders of the Land of Childhood did incredible things like building a working ferris wheel underground. © UNICEF/UN041520/Alshami
It wasn’t easy. It took two years for Yaseen and his friends to build the Land of Childhood from two bare basements.

“We dug a tunnel to create a safe connection between the two basements and decorated it with coloured lights and some toys,” says Yaseen. “We wanted to transform the tunnel from being a place associated with attacks, fear and horror to a fun place that engages children as they pass through it.”  
Syrian children don't normally feel safe in tunnels - but here, children run gleefully through them. © UNICEF/UN041522/Alshami

A war on childhood

About 200 children come to the Land of Childhood every day. Each one of them just wants to have the fun they can’t have outdoors.

Ten-year-old Abdulaziz, who lost his father during the war, says it’s the only place he can play. “My mother doesn’t allow me to play in the street with the neighbour’s children,” he says. “When she learned that this place is underground she let me come here to play.
Adbulaziz, 10, crosses a tunnel that connects two basements together at the Land of Childhood. © UNICEF/UN041513/Alshami
Children here face the constant danger of attacks that put their lives at risk. In 2016 alone, the UN documented 84 attacks on schools across the country with at least 69 children losing their lives and many others injured.
As children wait in line for fairy floss, another six million wait for humanitarian aid, uncertain of when they'll be able to play safely outside, let alone when the war will end, and when their childhood can resume. © UNICEF/UN041524/Alshami

Despite everything, people like Yaseen are using their courage and creativity to help children lead lives that are as close to ‘normal’ as possible. Against all odds, children continue to risk their lives every day to go to school and find a better future.

But in the Land of Childhood, children get a chance to do what they should be doing – playing and making friends. “We wanted to bring them in from the dark, depressing life they are experiencing under siege, to be able to play,” explains Yaseen. As children laugh and chatter around him, it seems his dream has come to life.

Change the news for a Syrian child

It's outrageous and utterly exhausting to witness devastation in Syria on the news night after night. After six years of horror headlines, you can feel helpless and hopeless. But the children of Syria haven't given up hope. They are determined to play, go to school and become the teachers, doctors and engineers who will rebuild a peaceful community.

That's why UNICEF runs Child Friendly Spaces. They're safe and welcoming places for children in some of the world's most dangerous countries where they'll be supported to learn, socialise and play. A place to use the pencils, books and learning supplies they need to express themselves. A chance to get the psychosocial care to recover from the profound stress of war. A way to be supported by trained teachers who believe in them, help them develop their talents and look forward with confidence to the day they’ll rebuild a peaceful Syria.

Don't turn the news off, turn it around. Keep these Child Friendly Spaces running and support all of UNICEF's life-saving work for Syrian children by making a donation today.