Syria conflict takes toll on the young

Refugee schools lack professionals trained in psychology issues

by Carol Morello

The Washington Post

Go to any school set aside for Syrian refugee children and the classroom walls are decorated with colorful drawings that, on closer inspection, depict scenes of carnage.

Airplanes drop bombs. Soldiers fire guns at civilians. Houses are consumed by flames. Tanks roll down streets lined with flowers. The color of blood and aggression is as plain as crayon on paper.

“The children’s thoughts are in red,” said Mustafa Shakr, a former principal in Damascus who now runs a school for more than 300 Syrian children in the Turkish city of Antakya near the Syrian border. “Even many of their drawings are done entirely in red.”

The uprising in Syria against President Bashar Assad, now in its 21st month, is having a profound and often disturbing effect on children.

Hundreds of thousands have been uprooted to flee with their families, frequently after witnessing death and the destruction of familiar buildings and neighborhoods that used to signify safety and continuity. In their makeshift homes, dark thoughts haunt these young victims.

“My younger sister had a dream the other night,” said 10-year-old Mahar, in a refugee camp near the Turkish town of Yayladagi. “She dreamed she went to Syria, killed Bashar and came back.”

Parents and humanitarian organizations are struggling to help. Many refugee schools have play rooms and art programs that encourage children to express their fears and start to regain a sense of normality.

But there is a shortage of professionals trained in psychology. The schools, staffed by Syrian teachers and administrators who themselves fled the violence, often make do with volunteers.

“I’m a gynecologist,” said a woman who would provide only her first name, Manar, who is helping children who exhibit traumatized behavior at a seven-room school fashioned from a small convention center in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Pointing to her team partner, she added, “She’s a civil engineer.”

Although some children are clearly exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, school officials and psychologists say they are a small minority. The experience of children in Nicaragua, Cambodia, the West Bank and Gaza suggests that most eventually return to their normal routines with no long-lasting repercussions, psychiatrists say.

“Research shows that memories are short-lived,” said Nadim Almoshmosh, president of the British Arab Psychiatrists Association. “Mostly, they come out of it. Of course, the longer it goes on, the more impact it will have. But eventually, most find a way of coping and move on.”

The traditional nature of Syrian society has both advantages and shortcomings in dealing with the psychological effects of war, Almoshmosh said.

It is not common for Syrians of any age to seek professional help from therapists because of the stigma attached to psychological problems.

“In Syria, children are not encouraged to express what they’re feeling,” Almoshmosh said.

Syria is a young country. Almost half its population is under 18, double the rate in the U.S., and that youth is seen in the teeming refugee camps in neighboring countries, where more than 500,000 are living. At least four times as many people are displaced within Syria, many of them in either rough camps or in towns far from home, isolated in places where school takes a back seat to the necessities of survival.

At the Bashaer School in Antakya, school psychologist Montassin Bilar Assasa has heard his share of distressful stories.

A 15-year-old girl is afflicted with nightmares after she saw hundreds of militia members affiliated with the regime approach her house and, fearing rape, prepared to throw herself off the balcony. A 5-year-old girl whose family moved her from one refugee camp to another has lost all sense of security and involuntarily urinates several times a day. A 14-year-old girl who saw a 20-year-old shot to death outside her home now refuses to be alone for even a minute.

Almoshmosh said adolescents and adults may suffer more than young children because they fully understood the brutality of what they lived through.

But Assasa said teenagers also understand the principles for which a war is fought, making it easier for them to cope. “At the age of 11 and older, they’re more capable of dealing with these frightening events,” he said. “Children at this age develop abstract thinking. They know the values of freedom and justice. That helps.”