The psychological scars of Syria’s war
London - “I really try to forget. We play and laugh and have fun. I made a lot of new friends and by having fun I can forget,” said Syrian refugee Abdulmajid, aged 15. He is one of the Syrian children that War Child Holland has helped.
About 100,000 Syrian children participated in War Child Holland programmes in Lebanon in 2015, ranging from education to child protection to psycho-social support, but that figure will be down by more than half for 2016 after funding has dried up despite War Child calling for greater financial assistance.
While there are many other humanitarian organisations working to help Syrian children in Lebanon, War Child has taken the lead in seeking to alleviate the psychological trauma experienced by many Syrian children who have fled violence.
Abdulmajid, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, witnessed horrors as he journeyed with his family from Syria to Lebanon. “On the road I saw houses in rubble and burned-out cars. I saw massacres, people and children, killed without any reason,” he told War Child’s Real Life Stories series.
“Presently, War Child is the leading agency providing psycho-social support services to Syrian children through the creation of Safe Spaces (20) in Lebanon,” War Child spokesman Peter Schouten said “These spaces provide an opportunity for children to begin recovering from the experiences of their displacement, and to access support for their psychological and emotional well-being.”
Safe Spaces is an initiative which provides Syrian refugee children with psycho-social support. These are areas where children can learn to cope with their experiences during the war, participate in classes to catch up with school and get the chance to be children again.
“They [Syrian children] are able to laugh and have fun again — of utmost importance in a time when their lives have so drastically changed,” War Child Holland’s website explained.
There are more than 1 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon — a country with a population of 4 million — with more than half of those under the age of 17. A 2014 survey of about 1,100 young Syrians conducted by Save the Children found that 41% of Syrians in Lebanon between the ages of 15 and 24 had contemplated suicide, while psychological trauma among children was unexceptional.
“You can safely assume that the majority of the population coming from Syria have some form of distress,” Anthony MacDonald, chief of child protection at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Lebanon, told the Washington Post last year.
There are 20 safe spaces in Lebanon where Syrian children, such as Abdulmajid and tens of thousands of others, can find respite from the cramped conditions of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and from horrific memories that dog them. War Child has plans to open new Safe Spaces with a community-based approach.
“From the moment that we started our work, we believed in one thing: No child should be part of war,” Schouten said. “There’s not a single excuse that justifies young lives being torn apart by war. That’s why War Child has shown that you can protect children and young people against violence and help them to rebuild their lives.
“Children are resilient, but they can’t recover on their own. That’s why it’s important that we help children as quickly as possible to deal with their violent war experiences.”
A January 2014 War Child report painted a bleak picture regarding the psychological issues that Syrian children in Lebanon are facing, including an increasing desensitisation towards violence.
“Based on analysis from children’s reports, it can be interpreted that normalisation and desensitisation to violence have altered the conceptualisation of childhood and play,” the report said, saying that many children reproduce and imitate violence they have witnessed as part of play.
“Some children play the role of cops, guards and military men at checkpoints. They imitate shootings and the sound of bombs… they imitate raids on houses and schools,” the report confirmed. Some media outlets have taken a sensationalist take on this information, warning that these same children could become a second generation of fighters as the Syrian conflict drags on but the truth is more complex.
Children deal with psychological trauma through play and Safe Spaces has an important role. “For some, play becomes the mechanism for children to address and understand their fears and to confront notions of power; for other children this becomes a reality as they choose to carry a weapon and to simulate the role of the armed men who they both fear and view as authority figures,” the report said.
“On the contrary many psychologists say that children re-enacting scenes of violence they have witnessed in a game could help them to distance themselves from what happened and analyse it from an external point of view,” Schouten said.
“We try to teach the children in our projects that violence is not an option to solve conflicts and we support their communities creating a safe environment. The children of today are the adolescents of tomorrow. So our hope rests with them. The choices they will make depend a lot on the economic chances they will have; education is the key.”