Syrian child refugees taught to release stress and resist recruitment
Beirut - The screams of a dozen Syrian and Palestinian children pierce the air of a community centre in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp.
The children are not hurt; they are yelling to express the anger and fear they feel as victims of conflict in special “peace education” classes.
“We don’t hit each other. We don’t say bad things about each other. Boys don’t hit girls,” said 11-year-old Hala, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.
Hala fled Deir ez-Zor in Syria and has been living in Lebanon for less than two years. She said one of her favourite activities is called playback in which each child tells a story or describes a situation that is bothering them and other children act it out.
Organised by Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a local charity, the classes in a chaotic fifth-floor room were set up to help children voice their opinions, release stress caused by war and displacement and rediscover their imaginations, staff members said.
They said they hoped by providing children with activities such as painting, drama and storytelling, the children will be less vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups that prey on children and teenagers who have little to occupy their time.
“These kids have been through a lot. They’re traumatised in many different ways,” said “peace education” project manager Elio Gharios. “They’re agitated, maybe introverted, aggressive at times.”
Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, half of them children.
In 1949, Lebanese officials opened the Shatila camp in Beirut to host Palestinian refugees fleeing Israel’s founding in 1948. As a new wave of Syrian refugees joined the ranks of the displaced, Shatila has grown upward, with some buildings now six floors tall. Houses are damp and overcrowded and tangled electricity wires that hang across the streets cause multiple deaths a year.
More of an urban slum than a traditional refugee camp, Shatila, which covers 1 sq. kilometre, is home to as many as 42,000 people, said Rasha Shukr, the Beirut area manager for Basmeh and Zeitooneh.
Gharios, a charismatic 24-year-old Lebanese psychology graduate, said children aged 7-14 attend the classes with up to 20 children in each session. Each class starts with the children deciding on rules for how they can and cannot treat each other.
“They need to know that finding peaceful ways to resolve conflicts is a very important matter… They are reminded every time that violence is not the solution, it’s not the way,” Gharios said.
“They’re young, it is the teenagers who are easiest to brainwash. Many children know how to roll a joint, say, and they’re 12 or 11. Many have witnessed things happen in here where someone would hold a gun against someone else’s head.”
Young Syrian refugees are at particular risk of being recruited by extremist groups because their recent displacement fuels a sense of hopelessness, said UK-based charity International Alert, which funds projects in Shatila camp, including the classes.
Palestinian groups, including Hamas militants and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, are active inside Shatila, charities working there said. Islamic State (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, another extremist group, have also been known to target young refugees online, they said.
International Alert said the classes make children less vulnerable to recruitment because they provide them a safe environment to discuss problems, learn conflict resolution skills and rebuild a sense of purpose.
Caroline Brooks, Syria projects manager at International Alert, which supports similar programmes throughout Lebanon, Syria and Turkey, said there were many reasons children may join an extremist group.
Often there is a need for a sense of significance, purpose and belonging and sometimes there is a desire for revenge, she said.
A lack of alternatives and the need to make a living are also strong pull factors, Brooks said.
Conflict and displacement tend to fuel the abuse and exploitation of children, refugee experts said. For example, many children are forced to work or beg to feed themselves and their families. Young girls face greater risk of being married off and domestic violence increases, they said.
“Peace education” classes have already had some effect, Brooks said citing a 17-year-old in the programme who was approached by an ISIS recruiter through Facebook.
The teenager immediately reported it to a member of staff involved in the classes.
For Hala, the classes she has been attending have made a huge difference to her and her younger siblings.
“My brothers changed. They became much happier,” she said.
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