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In Jordan, Syrian refugee children learn how to recover from a violent past

© UNICEF Jordan/2012/Malkawi
School teachers at Za’atari camp in northern Jordan are receiving training to support children who have undergone profound stress.

By Wendy Bruere

MAFRAQ, Jordan, 7 November 2012 - When Syrian refugee children show UNICEF child protection worker Jane MacPhail pictures they have drawn of revenge and violence, she knows what to say.

“I look at the picture, and then I ask them: ‘What would you draw if you lived in a world without war?’” Ms. MacPhail says.

When they draw a new picture – of trees, flowers, donkeys – she asks them: “Now which world would you prefer to live in, and tell me why?”

According to Ms. MacPhail, this exercise allows children to think about positive aspects of their lives and helps them understand they do not have to take on adult worries and responsibilities.

Training to reconnect

This approach is part of a much wider strategy for working with children who have experienced ongoing and extreme stress – or ‘profound stress’. Ms. MacPhail is leading training sessions in psycho-social understanding for teachers and child protection staff who work with children at Za’atari camp in northern Jordan.

Many of the refugee children at the camp have experienced or witnessed violence in the Syrian Arab Republic. Some now exhibit aggressive behaviour, themselves, and talk frequently of revenge, say UNICEF staff who work at the camp.

“When people undergo profound stress, the ‘feelings’ part of their brain overloads, and normal responses can become detached,” Ms. MacPhail says. “It is a survival mechanism, but people lose the ability to connect emotionally to others and to themselves. Basic feelings, even hunger, can stop, and people can find themselves unable to think ahead or remember recent events.” 

“Children can lose their ability to imagine, which is crucial to childhood development,” she adds.

The six-day training course she runs on site at Za’atari camp aims to teach the adults who work with these children how to “reconnect the feelings part of the brain,” she says.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1273/Malkawi
Children play with workers in a UNICEF-supported Child Friendly Space in Za’atari camp. Teachers and staff of the Child Friendly Spaces are taught a range of psycho-social activities to link children back to their own feelings and to the people around them.

The teachers and staff of the Child Friendly Spaces are taught a range of psycho-social activities to link children back to their own feelings and to the people around them. “Song and dance are used to make activities fun, as well as to layer messages of self, family and community,” Ms. MacPhail explains.

Putting techniques into practice

Hakim* is a worker in one of Za’atari’s Child Friendly Spaces who completed the training. He says that one of the techniques he learned is the ‘heart contract’. A group of children choose their own rules or priorities together. Hakim says the children he works with have made such rules as “Love our families”, “Don’t fight” and “Respect our teachers.”

“Now, when a child fights, I can show them the contract and remind them,” he says. “It’s made a big difference [in the children’s behaviour].”

Mohammad, a Syrian teacher who is working at the Za’atari school, also recently finished the training. He says that, with the growing violence in the Syrian Arab Republic, “[E]ven going to school was a risk for children. Life was absolute terror.”

Road to recovery

Mohammad talks about the toll the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and in the camp have taken. He explains that the children are often disconnected from their community and social norms. “The kids hit each other with stones and jump on the back of trucks. They don’t realize life in the camp is their reality now. They see it as a trip and don’t think normal behaviour applies,” he says.

“I try to reassure them they are in a stable environment and a community, and I ask them: ‘How would you behave in your home city?’”

Ms. MacPhail says the importance of this work with children cannot be underestimated, as, once children begin to reconnect to their feelings, and to other people, it is the children’s renewed connection with their parents and communities that helps the adults, themselves, to recover.

“It’s a domino effect,” she says. “This is why Child Friendly Spaces are more important than anything else – otherwise you can lose a whole generation to anger and revenge.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the refugees.



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