|© UNICEF Syria/2008|
|A girl plays with Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers who are trained to assess cases of children who need special psycho-social support.|
By Ingrida Kerusauskaite
DAMASCUS, Syrian Arab Republic, 22 July 2009 – Six-year-old Tareq* clings to his mother’s clothing and waits anxiously for his weekly psychotherapy session. The social worker, the psychologist and Tareq’s mother all encourage the little boy to lift his head up and say hello, but he won’t leave his mother’s lap.
“Iraqi refugees have been through so much,” explains social worker Mohammed Kahraman. “Some of the horrible things they have experienced are unimaginable for those who have not seen war. It is unacceptable that six-year-olds have to live with such memories.”
Ali is another six-year-old visiting this Child Protection and Psychosocial Support Unit at a child-friendly space operated by UNICEF and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). It is one of the many centres run by SARC volunteers, who organize games and activities for Iraqi refugee children.
Ali’s family fled Iraq three years ago, shortly after the child witnessed a group of men killing his uncle. For a month after the event, Ali sat in a corner crying and spoke to no one. He developed very strong fears – of the dark, of the sound of shooting, of sleeping alone and even of going to the bathroom.
At the child-friendly space, activities help identify children in need of psychological assessment.
“We watch the relationships kids have with their peers and the volunteers. Some children may be violent and aggressive; others refuse to participate in group activities,” says volunteer Sarah Jamal.
|A girl playing in the UNICEF/SARC child-friendly space outside Damascus.|
Six months after his referral, Ali has grown to enjoy his counselling sessions with the psychologist. He says he has begun to look forward to the upcoming school year, explaining: “Last year they said I was too young. They said that in September I could go. I can’t wait until September comes. I hope to make friends at school.”
Ali’s mother believes he has made progress. “Although his fears are still very much present, he can now control his voice [and] does not scream for no reason,” she says.
After his appointment with the therapist, Tareq returns to the waiting room more willing to talk. He speaks about his favourite singers and games. Tareq’s mother says her family was constantly on the move before their arrival in the Syrian Arab Republic because her husband received death threats.
“All of my children have witnessed the worst side of war,” she recalls. Her husband recently returned to Iraq to try to replenish the family’s finances. He has not been heard from since his departure.
“Sometimes I cannot take it anymore and just cry at home,” confides Tareq’s mother. “Of course, the children notice it and feel even less safe. Now I’m the only person they can rely on, the only one looking after them.”
Ultimately, children’s mental health is very much influenced by their parents’ and other family members’ mental state.
“A child learns everything about the world from his parents. If the mother feels that the world is not a safe place, she will pass on her fears and sense of insecurity to her children,” explains a case worker at the centre, Yasser Moalla.
UNICEF and SARC have been establishing multidisciplinary units since April 2008 to support Iraqi children and family members in need of specialized assistance. Each unit consists of a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a speech therapist, a case study worker and a social worker.
To date, the units in Saida Zainab, Jaramana, Mezzeh and Mazraa have received more than 1,600 cases and have provided more than 3,500 follow-up sessions.
* The names of the children in this story have been changed.