The healing power of music, play and fruit trees
By Alma Hassoun
DAMASCUS, Syria, 27 June 2013 – A little boy scribbles something on a small piece of paper dewdrop before he meticulously glues it on a bright red apple-shaped paper.
“I wish I could go back home,” the text reads.
The boy’s name is Issam*, and he’s only 8. But his words are too big for his age: “I miss my uncle,” he says, quietly colouring the paper-made apple red. “He died a while ago.”
Issam also misses his grandmother, aunts and cousins – all of whom recently fled the country to neighbouring countries due to the violence.
Issam and his family now live in a school, a little bit less than 4 miles away from the neighbourhood where he was born, where his best friends are and where he went to school.
As Syria enters the third year of a relentless conflict, stories like Issam’s are only too common. More than 2 million children have been displaced, over 800,000 became refugees and at least 6,500 have been killed.
But in this centre in the outskirts of Damascus, Issam can at least express the fear and anxiety of his life in a time of conflict.
The room is full of children like him, most of them less than 10, quietly sticking their wishes on brightly coloured paper fruits. A volunteer from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is never too far, offering crayons and pencils and collecting the finished fruits to hang them on a big cardboard wish tree.
Just outside, a group of children are planting seeds on the terrace while others are gliding down a slide. In another room, more children are drawing or sitting on beanbags talking about what they like or dislike about life in general.
This is one of 15 centres in Damascus and its countryside where children get together to draw, play, sing and forget, albeit briefly, the horrors of life in a conflict zone. Four similar centres had to close in the previous months due to increasing violence in some neighbourhoods.
“The conflict in Syria is disrupting community activities, services and support to children and affecting families’ ability to provide emotional support,” said Insaf Nizam, UNICEF Child Protection Chief in Syria. “We work to provide children who have been exposed to traumatic experiences because of the high levels of displacement and violence, with the means to help them cope with the stress and anxiety.”
Around 3,600 children have enrolled in the centre since the beginning of the year and at least 50 attend every day, many of them have been displaced from their home towns.
Different conflicts, same horrors
UNICEF has been supporting this centre since 2008, offering assistance to Iraqi children who had fled the violence in their country for what was then a safe Syria. The volunteers working there to bring back smiles to children’s faces are themselves not new to stories of pain, suffering and survival.
But helping the children your own country carries a heavier emotional toll.
“This crisis hits close to home, it is even more heart-breaking,” said Fares*, one of the volunteers. “Parents are counting on us to make their children feel happy. We can’t let them down.”
Parents are already seeing signs of progress in their children. Fatma*, initially from Homs, says that coming to the centre has been beneficial not just for her 4-year-old daughter, but to her as well – thanks to the sessions organized for parents. “My little daughter was always stressed,” she said. “Now I feel much better when I bring her here. I also get advice on how to help her and my other children deal with their experiences in the parental support sessions.”
But she only has one wish: For things to go back to normal and for the wishes hanging on that cardboard tree to come true.