Healing the Invisible Wounds of Syrian Children

In March 2018, the Syrian conflict entered its eighth year with no end in sight. This war has stolen the right to childhood from millions of Syrian children. An entire generation is growing up with the ‘toxic stress’ caused by seven years of bombing, bloodshed and displacement.

In this interview, SOS Children’s Villages psychologist Dr. Teresa Ngigi explains the impact disasters and wars have on children and families, and tells us about the importance of the healing process.

Is there a difference between trauma from natural disaster and trauma caused by mass displacement or conflict?

“When you have continuous disaster – such as war, epidemic, or extreme poverty – children tend to develop resilience that sometimes makes them almost numb to the trauma. This isn’t good but it’s a coping mechanism. Those experiencing disaster for the first time have not previously had the need to create such defence mechanisms.”

How does treatment differ for one-off disasters compared to prolonged emergencies? 

“Developmental trauma and continuous trauma create a basis for serious health, mental and relationship problems or learning disabilities – even though externally the individual may appear resilient.

Event trauma – from an earthquake for example – may result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The person becomes disorientated. They cannot put their life back together and this interferes with their wellbeing in different ways, including physical and mental health problems. 

In both instances, it is important to understand that there’s a difference between treatment and healing. Healing is a long-term process, but treatment can come in the form of medication to address symptoms without necessarily helping the healing process. We need to be able to assess the individual’s situation, identify their needs, create a treatment plan, and then evaluate whether we are able to achieve the appropriate objectives.” 

A drop-in center in Syria, providing unaccompanied and vulnerable children with shelter, food, health and hygiene services, and psychosocial support. Credit: SOS Children’s Villages

Does toxic stress impact girls & boys differently?

“The way the brain copes and processes toxic stress differs between boys and girls. The insula – the brain region that processes emotions and empathy – is smaller in girls and larger in boys who have experienced toxic stress. The functions controlled by this part of the brain include perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning and interpersonal experiences. Girls who experience toxic stress may suffer from a faster than normal ageing of one of the part of the insula which puts them at higher risk of developing PTSD. High levels of stress could also contribute to early puberty in girls.

It’s important to put these findings into consideration when designing healing approaches. Girls may be more susceptible to PTSD than boys, hence they need specific interventions.”

How important is a long-term perspective in treating trauma like you see in Syria?

“Very important! If you start a process with a child who has been traumatized and you leave that process halfway, you are going to worsen the situation for that child. 

An assessment is extremely important to establish the needs of the child, as well as to assess whether we have the resources, time, and expertise to start and continue the healing process. Healing trauma is a demanding endeavor, and mental health specialists need to work diligently with a traumatized person to create a solid and reassuring relationship and guide them towards taking their power back.”

The initial phase of a humanitarian response typically involves reaching as many people in need as quickly as possible. Would you say that dealing with deeper mental health issues, especially of children, is more complex? 

“Yes, and this is why SOS Children’s Villages works with partner organizations to divide duties and responsibilities. There are organizations better able to address the immediate large-scale needs in a disaster zone. We use our expertise in caring for vulnerable children and helping their families to address their very specialized needs with a long-term perspective.

Through training local social workers and other specialists, SOS Children’s Villages can improve local capacity and strengthen the ability to respond to the needs of children and their families.”

Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) have been a central feature of SOS Children’s Villages’ work in emergency situations. How important are these facilities? 

“Child friendly spaces are a central part of our emergency response work. They offer a great environment to deal with trauma because you have caregivers who are trained, a secure and safe place, and an environment where children can express themselves. After trauma it is very important to be able to express yourself. Even without verbalizing experiences, children are involved in drawing, art therapy, singing, dancing and other activities.

It is also important that parents take part in activities so that they can participate in the healing process. Participating with their children is therapeutic for parents. We help address the needs of the parents through the children.” 

Children participating in educational and psychosocial activities at one of SOS Children’s Villages child friendly spaces in Aleppo, Syria. Credit: SOS Children’s Villages

How do Child Friendly Spaces help in providing ‘normalcy’? 

“Child Friendly Spaces offer a place for children to play, talk with other children, learn and tell stories. These activities help the children get in touch with themselves and feel a sense of belonging. When you bring them together, they feel they are a part of a community that is safe and protected.”

You can learn more and support SOS Children’s Villages Syria here!

Where are the Syrian Girls?

I recently watched footage of displaced Syrians returning to their homes. Men fought back tears as women let tears flow. Young boys and girls clustered around their mothers, absorbing the emotions of the moment. Adolescent boys stood beside their fathers, looking for social cues to mimic the adults.

But there were no adolescent girls.

I studied the video intently, enlarging the screen and hitting pause. No matter how long I stared, how many other videos I viewed or how far I stretched my imagination (well, maybe that young woman is really a girl…or maybe that little girl is really a very young adolescent), I was not able to identify one single adolescent girl.

In conflicts, adolescent girls disappear from public spaces. When Syria spiralled into violence – seven years ago today – families began restricting the mobility of their daughters. As rape and abduction emerged as weapons of war, girls stopped walking to the market. Some stopped going to school and others had to stop going because their schools were destroyed.

As parents lost livelihoods and struggled to feed their families, some began to see marriage as a way to reduce costs in their household so that that they would not watch all of their children slowly starve, and so girls as young as 10 were married off to adult men. Short contract marriages, informal temporary marriages in which girls are passed from temporary husband to temporary husband, emerged as a way to rationalize trafficking. In most cases fathers are the ones who sell their daughters to man after man.

Whether in the home of their parents or husbands, girls across Syria are besieged. Girls who escape as refugees tend to be slightly better off because they are more likely to have access to humanitarian services, but new vulnerabilities emerge. A taxi driver in Jordan told my colleague that he wanted to marry a Syrian girl because “they are desperate and easy to train”. He didn’t say if he would seek to arrange the marriage or abduct. I’m not sure which would be more traumatic for me: being given away to a foreign man by my own father or being kidnapped by a stranger.

In 2016 I spent months working on child marriage prevention and response in the Syria crisis. Since that same year, I’ve been working on other projects that touch the myriad of issues facing Syrian girls as well as girls throughout the region.

I am so tired of this. I don’t like living in Jordan. I want to go home.

Instead of becoming desensitized by the conflict, I absorb it. I feel the plight of these girls in my bones. The girls who can’t leave their homes without being harassed and groped by men in plain daylight. Girls who are married to adult men. Girls who are trafficked by a phoney marriage.

I persist because these girls persist, perhaps like no other.

Anne Frank, a besieged girl from yet another war, wrote that “a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” The world may not know it, but adolescent girls are defining this crisis through their invisibility. We don’t notice their absence because it screams at a frequency beyond our ability to hear. It is more powerful than our ability to comprehend. One day we will understand just how epic this failure of humanity truly is.

And yet there is the defiance – a little spark inside of every girl that exists despite it all. I know what this defiance looks like, I know what it feels like and I know what it sounds like. It is inside of every Syrian girl I have ever seen, and I know it is inside of every girl I haven’t seen too.

It is a light, flickering and flashing inside besieged girls living homes made of rubble or tents, that defies the darkness of seven years of conflict. This flicker and flash is how I know that this war will end. It is how I know that girls will prevail. And it is how I know that, one day, these invisible girls will reemerge from their homes and their marriages and shine brighter than the sun.

To help break the invisibility of Syrian girls, share this posts and other information on adolescent girls so that the world can see them again.

In Solidarity with Syria: The Power of Global Action

The conflict in Syria has continued for five years. Nearly 300,000 people have lost their lives, millions have had to leave their homes and flee as refugees to other parts of Syria or across borders, and parts of the country, like the capital Aleppo, are in ruins. Not long ago, a picture of a dust- and blood covered 5-year old boy Omran sitting in the back of an ambulance was seared into our brains as a symbol of a war that seems to have no end. We are viewers, through our TV and computer screens, many of us paralyzed and not knowing what, if anything, we should – or can – do.

But there is always something. Some action each and every one of us can take to somehow help the people trapped in this conflict. But what we cannot keep doing any longer is be silent. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, described the situation in Syria in these words:

“Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world”

 

savesyria2So what can our support look like? It can take many shapes and forms – and one of those is creating a civil movement around this issue. This is what is happening in Helsinki, capital of Finland. In this small remote Nordic country, local activists, human rights defenders, organizers and other stakeholders came together as private citizens with one shared goal: to do something to help people in Syria. Soon, there were 200 of us, putting our heads, minds and talents together to come up with something concrete we could do – and out of this, came a plan for a peace march and support concert for 24 October – UN Day.

200 private citizens, ranging from communications people and journalists to musicians and radio hosts, NGO and civil society workers to people in the private sector, have volunteered their time around the clock for the past week to put everything together. To create the event, to write press releases, to come up with demands we can present to our own government, to get artists to perform in the benefit concert, to design materials. In a matter of a day, several private Facebook groups were formed for different parts of the planning: communications, marketing, mobilization, concert. People who had never met each other or worked together found a common goal, and came together around that.

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The result? A peace march planned for Monday, with over 2,000 people signed up to participate as of Friday, and a benefit concert with several well known and successful Finnish and international musicians, artists, singers and performers lined up to perform for free – with all proceeds going to NGOs who have a formal partnership with the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and are working in Syria to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. The group behind it all is also doing their best to make this into a global movement, and use #Helsinki4Syria as a catalyst for similar action not only across Europe but around the world. No action is too small or meaningless – one person can organize a fundraiser in a local bar, put together a panel discussion to raise awareness, create a social media campaign, write a letter to a political representative, initiate a petition. We can all find a way to help, to do something, to do anything – just not stand by silently.

#Helsinki4Syria is becoming a national movement – but with your help, we can make it a global one. There is no more time to waste – Aleppo, referred to as a “slaughter house” by a UN Chief, is being torn apart by air strikes and bombs, and those suffering the most are, as always, women and children. Stopping this is our global, shared responsibility.

So here is what you can do:

  • If you are in Helsinki, come to the peace march and concert and spread the word about them on social media
  • If you live somewhere else, organize an event of your own – a march, a rally, a concert. It can be anything!
  • Spread the word on social media with #SaveSyria, #Helsinki4Syria, and create your own #YOURCITY4Syria movement
  • Make the peace symbol, take a picture and share it on social media with #SaveSyria. You can draw it on your skin, on paper, in the sand, make it with pebbles – any way you want!

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Many people will say: this is not our responsibility. Our countries have nothing to do with this. But that is wrong – it is our shared responsibility. Because what is happening in Syria is not only a tragedy and travesty, it constitutes a war crime and a grave violation of the basic human rights of the Syrian people. And raising our voices to stand up against those violations is, absolutely, our responsibility.

Featured image and in-text illustration by Elina Tuomi.