Syrian conflict enters ninth year, spawning a generation of children who’ve never known peace

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Updated

March 15, 2019 10:49:49

Despite a lack of power, limited supplies and the occasional sound of distant gunfire, the siblings giggled happily as they joked and played with their parents inside a dim stone cottage in Idlib, Syria.

Key points:

  • Many Syrian children have lived their entire lives in areas that are under siege
  • 2.8 million Syrian children have missed out on all or a significant part of their education
  • Side effects from trauma could include attachment issues, and learning and behavioural problems, and could last for a lifetime

“Of course I get scared when there is bombing, but my dad and mum encourage us and lift our spirits,” said Fatma, who was seven years old when the fighting began on March 15, 2011.

As the Syrian crisis enters it’s ninth year, there are millions of children there who have never known peace.

The fighting has claimed more than half a million lives, and children account for an estimated one-quarter of all civilian deaths, according to the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF.

Many more have been injured, witnessed the death of family members and friends, seen their homes destroyed, run for shelter as bombs fell, or suffered illness from malnutrition and disease.

“It’s the country’s children who have suffered the most and have the most to lose,” UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said recently.

“Each day the conflict continues is another day stolen from their childhood.”

The psychological effects can be deep and lifelong, but experts say parents can play a key role in reducing the impact of a childhood spend inside a war zone.

‘Loss and separation’

Syrian psychiatrist Mohammad Abo-Hilal said children in Syria were experiencing trauma from multiple sources, with many having lived their entire lives in areas under siege.

“They experience loss and separation, and lose family cohesion and the life of the community that provides them with protection and safety,” told the ABC.

He said the side effects could include intense fear, attachment issues, bed wetting, reluctance to play, learning difficulties, behavioural and emotional problems, and a lack of self worth.

Neuroscientist and child psychologist Stacy Drury added that trauma in early childhood can inhibit brain development, cognitive function, impact crisis response systems, learning ability, aging processes and immune systems for the rest of a child’s life.

The younger the child, the greater the impact, with children under three facing the greatest risk.

“The body systems that are most rapidly developing when the experiences happen are the ones that are going to be most impacted,” Dr Drury, a researcher at Tulane University in Louisiana, told the ABC.

“For little kids, all of their systems are coming online and developing, so there is a much greater risk of impact across all of their systems.”

But Dr Drury said it was important to note that resilience varied dramatically — some children were not significantly affected by a traumatic experience, while others were.

‘I lost my education when we fled Syria’

The fighting has displaced more than 11.8 million people, over half of them children, according to a 2019 report by World Vision.

Some have never been to school, while others have missed out on up to eight years of learning, making it extremely difficult for them to catch up.

“It’s not like you can put that child into an age-appropriate environment [when they return to school] and expect them to do well,” Dr Drury said.

“You need to build not only the missing education blocks, but also the social and emotional [ones], the peer interactions — all of the things that make learning possible.”

Alaa al-Haj Hussain was nine years old when his family fled to Turkey to escape the fighting in their Aleppo neighbourhood back in 2012.

“The hardest part was the harsh living conditions, and I lost my education when we fled Syria,” he told the ABC.

Even for those who managed to stay in their homes education is limited, as thousands of schools have been forced to close.

The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack reported last year that 63 per cent of Syrian schools had been destroyed or damaged, while hundreds of others were used as military barracks, detention centres, or to house displaced families.

But conditions were slowly improving.

Some schools have reopened this year in areas where the fighting has lulled, and many displaced students like Alaa — who now lives with his family in Sweden — have managed to migrate to stable countries and restart their education, including some 4,350 students now living in Australia.

“It’s hard after losing three years in Turkey and a year in Sweden with no school — and being away from any kind of educational system — to return to studying,” said Alaa, who recently turned 16.

“What makes it easier, though, is the support I get from my family and the teachers in school.”

“There are obstacles, but my will is strong and I will get through this.”

‘You can’t say nothing bad is going to happen’

Dr Drury refers to parents as “the ultimate bubble wrap” in protecting children from the chaos of war.

“They are absolutely critical — probably the most critical part, especially for young children,” she said, adding that the role of caregiver could be filled by another supportive adult.

Children need a feeling of safety and routine in order to develop, she said.

Maintaining structure, family meal times, celebrating holidays, but also maintaining expectations such as chores and study time “to show them you think they are capable”, are all ways that parents can create a “safe place” for children within the home.

“In situations like this you can’t say nothing bad is going to happen, because it is,” said Dr Drury.

“Having a safety plan is not only practical but gives kids a sense that there is something they can do to address this unpredictable fear.”

This includes where to go during air raids or street clashes.

‘We understood the situation we were living in’

During the height of a battle near her home town in 2014, the atmosphere in Fatma’s house remained calm and happy.

Relationships within the family were visibly strong, as the four siblings played and joked together with their parents, who also maintained structure and education for the children despite the chaos around them.

“We understood the situation that we were living in and the need to not bring what was happening outside into the home and to the children,” Fatma’s father told the ABC.

“That’s why the atmosphere of the house was always joyful despite all the danger that was waiting for them outside.”

Fatma is now 15, and the family still live inside a contested area of Syria.

“The solidarity of our family eases the fear in my heart,” she said.

“The fun atmosphere that my parents try to make in the house helps me become stronger.”

But in Syria, adults are also suffering.

Dr Drury said while “moments of quality interaction” and “normality” were critical, parents also needed to take time for themselves.

“It’s OK to tell your kids that you’re upset, scared, frustrated by the situation,” she said, adding that telling a child you need “time out” provided a healthy model in dealing with normal feelings.

Attempting to hide feelings could result in a child “internalising and thinking they are the cause of the distress”, particularly with younger children, she said.

‘Empowering survivors’: Post-traumatic growth

Dr Abo-Hilal, the psychiatrist, said treatment programs needed to focus on “empowering survivors” rather than “supporting victims”.

He is a firm believer that trauma can be channelled into something positive, and has done so within his own life.

At the beginning of the conflict, he was arrested and tortured in prison for 70 days before fleeing to Jordan, leaving his practice and possessions behind him.

In the face of hardship, Dr Abo-Hilal began creating programs to help other refugees, and later co-founded Syria Bright Future, an organisation now operating in Jordan, Turkey and Syria to aid in the psychological healing of families affected by the conflict.

“We always try not to focus only on the negative aspects [caused by the trauma], but also on [the child’s] strengths and resources to build upon,” he said.

The group runs a range of free programs, from personal therapy sessions to group activities and parental training.

“For any program to be effective, it must target parents in addition to children,” he said.

Restoring the daily routines of children, including education and recreational activities, was crucial, he added.

Children also learned strategies to control “abnormal PTSD-related reactions”, and to engage in community activities.

“Psychological support and therapy helps children get rid of their symptoms and restore their functions,” Dr Abo-Hilal said.

“That means they restore their play and interaction with other children improving school performance and the ability to better deal with their emotions.”

Topics:

unrest-conflict-and-war,

family-and-children,

child-health-and-behaviour,

relief-and-aid-organisations,

rights,

world-politics,

refugees,

syrian-arab-republic

First posted

March 15, 2019 10:47:21



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