Healing the invisible scars of war
A Syrian mother’s determination to help her children seek a better future
Nashabiya, rural Damascus, 24 July 2020 – “The children love recreational activities. Drawing, for instance, helps them turn the pain they have endured during the past few years into something beautiful and relieving,” says Mahasen, a primary school teacher and mother of five, as she points at her children’s drawings decorating the walls of their war-ravaged home in Nashabiya town of East Ghouta, rural Damascus.
In 2013, Mahasen, her -now late- husband and children fled escalating violence in their hometown of Nashabiya to Hamoriya, a safer neighbouring town. Mahasen was a full-time stay-at-home mother and dedicated all her time to taking care of the children while her husband earned their living, working as a veterinarian.
“After arriving in Hamoriya, we built a decent life. I did not have to worry about anything else but raising the kids,” recalls Mahasen.
Little did she know that things were soon to change.
“In the blink of an eye life turned into hell,” she explained. In 2018, Hamoriya, the family’s newly-found haven, was caught in a spiral of continuing violence.
“We sheltered from fighting in the basement, until one day, shelling was so violent that it reached our underground hideout.”
That was the day Mahasen’s husband lost his life to violence, leaving her pregnant and with four children to care for.
“After the shell hit, I carried two of the children, Islam and Safa, rushing them out to safety,” says Mahasen. “I wasn’t sure where my other two -Omar and Marwa- were or if they were still alive. I couldn’t reach them.”
As soon as the shelling subsided, with the help of her neighbour, Mahasen headed back to the basement to rescue Omar and Marwa; she found them screaming under the rubble. Not long after, the mother fled again with her children to Damascus for refuge.
“After the incident, Omar remained totally mute,” says Mahasen. “He was becoming an introvert and developed frequent frantic episodes that led him sometimes to bang his head against the wall.”
Six months later, following a lull in violence in East Ghouta, Mahasen decided to move back with her four children and soon-to-be-born baby Hala to the family’s war-damaged house in Nashabiya.
“Although I kept showering him with love, Omar’s condition didn’t get any better for almost a year after. I didn’t know what to do.”
When Mahasen heard that a UNICEF-supported child protection team was visiting conflict-affected areas including Nashabiya, she took Omar over to see if they can help. He was immediately assigned to a case manager, who referred him to structured individual psychosocial support sessions to help him overcome his anxiety.
“The support given through the sessions has helped him a lot. He has retrieved his speech, became much more social and the episodes have become less frequent,” adds Mahasen.
Omar and his siblings have been participating in UNICEF-supported psychosocial support activities in Nashabiya, including group discussions on self-awareness, expression of emotions and communication with peers. The children have also benefitted from engaging in regular recreational activities designed to help them externalize their feelings and thoughts, such as drawing and handicraft making.
“I let them express themselves however they please. Enabling them to speak their minds in a peaceful and positive way will protect them from being influenced by all the violence going on around them.”
To Mahasen, the shift in her children’s attitude is visible on the walls of their home. Previously gray and grim, the children’s drawings have now turned the walls into colourful canvases.
This year so far, with thanks to generous contributions from the People of Japan and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), UNICEF has been able to reach 2000 children with psychosocial support in rural Damascus.