Safe and Sound: Building Emotional Resilience in Refugee Girls

The photos of Syrian families fleeing war to the safety of refugee camps in Jordan are gut wrenching, but their distress is only worsened by family separation, physical danger, trauma, overcrowding, and lack of information about family, food, and relocation. And, being a refugee girl creates a “double endangerment” due to age and gender, according to Goleen Samari, a fellow with the international education non-profit Humanity in Action.

In Syria, this health vulnerability all too often often takes the form of rape, child marriage, and sex work by girls who then experience deep and lasting emotional distress. In fact, 2015 statistics show that girls under 18 make up 25% of all Syrian refugee marriages in Jordan. While parents say they arrange young marriages to prevent rape in camps, these marriages bring their own psychological consequences and risk for abuse of child wives. Additional risk factors include lack minimal access to education and menstrual products, adding to girls’ disempowerment, stress, and shame.

These circumstances all point to the interplay of mental health and sexual health, with extreme stressors that precipitate conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, according to the WHO’s Assessment of Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Needs of Displaced Syrians in Jordan. Compounding the issue, a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reveals limited training of aid workers to address prevention of these additional risks for women.

The WHO states that physical safety and meeting basic needs for food and supplies are at the core of protecting girls from psychological distress. By receiving access to the basics from aid organizations, girls and women will not need to turn to sex work to survive and may experience reduced stress and stigma that lead to depression, isolation, and anxiety.

Attending to girls’ emotional and educational support is also key, in terms of basic schooling and taking care of their mental and reproductive health. For example, the Another Kind of Girl Collective, WomenOne, and Save the Children International brought an innovative initiative to girls in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. The program provided training and equipment for girls to create documentary films about their lives, so that they could “articulate the unspeakable,” support each other, and connect to the outside world. The films are viewable on the Another Kind of Girl website, receiving accolades from around the world.

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Photo: Another Kind of Girl Collective, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan.

“We strive to rise above our limitations and work toward our dreams. I feel it’s my responsibility not just to tell the world that truth, but to let people see it for themselves.”

-Khaldiya, filmmaker living in the Za’atari camp, in an Op-Doc appearing in the New York Times

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Photo: Another Kind of Girl Collective, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan.

Storytelling in this form helps to reduce the more than 40% of refugees in the Za’atari camp who report no method for coping with their trauma and stress. Syria Bright Future, led by a psychiatrist who was himself a refugee, delivers therapy to refugee children and provides education in the Za’atari Camp, teaching adolescents about gendered violence and underage marriage in an effort to prevent these conditions. More aid workers must include trained professionals in trauma, depression, and mental health. These workers should be particularly using culturally sensitive screening tools while destigmatizing mental illness. This is critical to the success of attempts to help girls cope.

When it comes to the refugee crisis, we can all do something. There are some simple ways you can act to make a difference in the emotional health of girls in refugee settings:

  1. Sign a petition, or start your own, to protect girls from sexual violence, which you can do by signing this petition to the president of South Sudan or the International Medical Corps petition demanding access to basic medical and mental health needs for refugee families.

2. Donate to WomenOne’s filmmaking program for refugee girls in Jordan or its project to provide essential education and basic needs, such as food and school supplies.

3. Choose a organization involved in sustainable development that speaks to you, such as Circle of Health International or Mercy Corps. You can contribute supplies, volunteer any amount of time you have, or organize your own fundraiser to organize your community in making a larger contribution.

Featured Photo: Colombe Verges / Flickr. 

The Harsh Reality for Women and Girls in Syria

If there is one thing we know about Syria it is women, girls, youth and their families have suffered far too much for too long,” -UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.

As the civil war in Syria continues, the world holds its breath waiting to hear the final decision from the Obama Administration and U.S. Congress on whether or not to launch a missile strike in Syria. Many questions remain unanswered; the use of chemical weapons in Syria has been internationally deliberated with tragic testimonies, graphic images and video footage screened across the internet and mainstream media. In the debate over the use of chemical weapons, one of my favourite political pundits Tony Benn stated,

I am totally opposed to intervening in Syria, it would lead to a Middle East war. Chemicals are just another weapon that kill people. Don’t bombs kill people? Don’t ‘Cruise Missiles’ kill people? If America and Britain defy the UN then it will lead to a greater conflict.”

The U.S. Senate drafted a resolution that permits U.S. President Obama to order a “limited and tailored” military mission against Syria, as long as it does not exceed 90 days and involves no U.S. troops on the ground for combat operations. The President will now have to pass the resolution by way of chamber votes in Congress.

??????)?While politicians give their solutions and verdicts over an intervention in Syria, millions of Syrian refugees live in refugee camps across the Middle East and remain vulnerable and uncertain of their future. It is now estimated that, since the civil war began back in March 2011, 2 million Syrian people are currently displaced and have fled the country – the majority of whom are women and children. Furthermore, within Syria itself, over 4 million people remain displaced, forced from their homes due to violent conflict. In a joint statement earlier this week, the foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan and Turkey in addition to Lebanon’s Social Affairs Minister and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urgently appealed for greater international support for the refugee crisis.

To paraphrase former British Parliamentarian Tony Benn, bombs and missiles kill people therefore increasing the killing will only lead to greater conflict across the whole region. What is really needed now is humanitarian support as the neighbouring countries struggle to manage the increasing number of refugees entering their borders.

An average of almost 5,000 Syrians flee into neighbouring countries every day, in total some 716,000 refugees alone have entered Lebanon. Of the 2 million Syrian refugees currently seeking safety, shelter, food and medical care, over half are children, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 11. Hence, instead of launching a missile strike on Syria, shouldn’t the international community be providing humanitarian aid and assistance to aid agencies in Syria and its neighbouring countries experiencing the influx of refugees? The UN says the conflict in Syria has resulted in the worst refugee crisis for 20 years, with numbers not seen since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????Women and girls continue to suffer indiscriminately through war and conflict as brutal killings, rape and sexual assault and harassment destroy the fabric of families and whole communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that rape and sexual assault are now being used as a weapon of war in Syria. Furthermore, young Syrian refugee women and girls also face a tragic future, as multiple reports have concluded that child marriage, a human rights violation, is particularly prevalent among refugee camp families. The negative impact of child marriage in any situation means that girls become more vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, slavery, HIV and AIDs, maternal mortality and poverty. Erica Hall, World Vision Senior Child Rights Adviser stated:

Parents will feel incredibly vulnerable and may believe that a husband will be able to protect their daughter from these threats, and allow them to better provide for their remaining children, too.”

Shockingly, aid workers in refugee camps are not exempt from this behavior as they have been identified as perpetrators seeking sexual favours in return for help. There is little or no protection at all from such sexual assaults. With nowhere to turn, no support or money to feed their children, many women are forced into prostitution as a mode of survival, putting themselves into great danger of violence and HIV.

The reports and testimonies of sexual violence from pregnant women, women with disabilities, women living with fatal diseases, women seeking emergency medical care and so on are seemingly endless. As politicians discuss their ‘interventions,’ women, girls, men and boys are dying and struggling to keep hope alive.

All images courtesy of Flickr’s Syria Freedom Creative Commons.