Syrian children bearing the brunt of war

Friday 04/12/2015
Thousands of orphans in Syria in need of care.

Damascus - Their playground is a bat­tlefield and their toys are plastic guns and sticks. Instead of acquiring an education at school, they are learning warfare through simu­lating battles. Almost five years of a most brutal conflict have deprived Syrian children of their childhood, familiarising them with violence, displacement and loss.

With a largely young popula­tion — an estimated 50% are under 18 — Syria’s children are obviously the most affected, suffering social, behavioural and physical disorders inflicted by the extreme violence that many have witnessed since anti-regime demonstrations started in March 2011 and developed into a bloody, multisided war.

Children were the first victims of the uprising triggered by the incar­ceration and torture of 15 students, who were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Deraa.

“Syrian children are suffering from nervous and muscular pain as a result of the anxiety and stress they have been experiencing. This has driven many to become aggres­sive and stubborn and react in un­justified and illogical manner,” not­ed Caroline Mohsen, a psychology professor at Damascus University.

Psychic symptoms developed by trauma include uncontrolled urina­tion among children, excessive and hysterical crying, early age smok­ing and sexual harassment. “Such behavioural troubles are known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children are deeply affected by trauma, changing them drasti­cally from normal and disciplined school-age children into something totally different,” Mohsen said.

“These children need many years of psychological monitoring and fol­low up in order to return to a normal life.”

While hundreds of thousands of children have experienced violence and trauma, very few groups offer psychological counselling and sup­port. Among those that do are the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and associations for the handi­capped.

According to a UNICEF report, the war has affected 5.6 million children in Syria and 2 million others have fled as refugees.

Mona Kurdi, who is in charge of refugee affairs at SARC, contended that “all children in Syria have been affected directly or indirectly by the war from what they see and hear”.

“The effects of war are many,” she said. “There is the psychological consequence of loss and displace­ment, in addition to physical reper­cussions resulting from entering the labour market at an early age to help their families, when they should be focused on learning and playing. Many are scarred for life, both phys­ically and psychologically.”

Nagham Maalouli, another SARC worker, pointed out that the group has identified 983 cases of trauma­tised children in refugee centres this year in Damascus. “The most vulnerable are the unaccompanied children who have either lost their parents or who have been lost by their parents. There are more than 36 such cases whom we could reach and register,” Maalouli said.

She said children who have suf­fered severe trauma are self-se­cluded, hyperactive or lack concen­tration. “In interactive games that we do with the children, many do not want to participate while others are too overwhelming. In some ex­tremely severe cases, children aged between 12 and 13 have attempted suicide,” she said.

SARC has more than 196 volun­teers working with traumatised children across Syria. They have handled 31,000 cases, Maalouli said, adding: “It is not only because they are young and cannot assimilate what is happening around them but because the extent of violence in Syria is unbearable even for adults.”

In addition to being traumatised by violence, children suffer from be­ing uprooted from their cities, their homes and their schools. “Those who were displaced to [relatively] safe places have difficulty to inte­grate in a new setting or environ­ment,” Mohsen noted, recalling the case of a 5-year-old displaced girl who would not stop crying until her father went back to their home in Idlib to fetch her doll.

Trauma is not limited to displaced children. Those living in so-called safe spots have been deprived of proper education since many school buildings have been turned into shelters for refugees.

“It is the child’s right to get an education, especially in the primary phase, which is when he can devel­op his personality and the knowl­edge he needs to have a better fu­ture,” said Mahmoud Mohamad, an education specialist.

“Every single child in Syria bears the brunt of the war, physically and morally,” he said. “Every family has lost one of its members and all have been affected by the deterioration of the local currency. Schools are not functioning properly and the chil­dren are stuck at home with no elec­tricity for more than 15 hours a day.”

Fadia Semaan lives in the relative­ly safe Damascus neighbourhood of Kassa’a but she has been confining her three children to home.

“Risks of sporadic bombardment stopped us from allowing the chil­dren to play in the adjacent gar­den. They instead spend their time watching television whenever there is power, getting exposed to scenes of violence and killings that is re­flected in their games and a grow­ingly aggressive behaviour,” Se­maan said.

“Scenes of mutilated bodies and severed heads have become familiar for Syrian adults and children alike. However, this has killed the naivety and spontaneity of childhood in many Syrian children,” Mohamad said.