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Monday, 12 December 2016

Engage: Charity helping Syrian children overcome psychological trauma of war

Written by The Press Association

Syrian children now living as refugees in Lebanon are being given psychological care to help them overcome the trauma of war thanks to support from a Scottish charity.

The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (Sciaf) is helping to fund its partner agency Caritas Lebanon to provide one-to-one counselling and group psychosocial sessions.

"There is not one family that escaped the death of a relative, and all of the children have experienced violent scenes," said psychologist Lina Zaarour, who runs the children's programme at the Caritas centre in the Bekaa Valley region.

With 1.5 million Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon - including hundreds of thousands of children - demand for sessions is huge.

Caritas, who also provide transport to their centres, try to accommodate as many refugees as possible, with those attending the sessions becoming involved through outreach work, or through referral by social workers.

The Caritas medical centre in Rayfoun, north of Beirut, refers around 20% of the children who pass through its doors for individual or group counselling.

Its last programme, which ran from January to November, saw 200 people a month, mostly children.

Rania Bteich, director of the centre, says bed-wetting and problems with speech can be among the physical signs of deeper psychological issues.

"It can be because of what they have seen in the war, and it can also be due to difficulties adapting to their current living situation as refugees," she said.

The trauma can result in children being reluctant to attend school in Lebanon, while those who are already out of school can become isolated.

Bassam Al Rahal, 30, is living with his wife Madiha, 28, daughter Ayat, 12, and three sons, Baker, 10, Omar, nine, and Ammar, five, in an apartment in Tripoli after fleeing their home in Homs.

The children rarely leave the apartment because they are afraid, and no longer attend school after his youngest son was threatened, he says.

"We have built a small world of our own here in Lebanon," he said.

"You will never see my children alone in the street. They were at school they made some friends, but here, not really.

"Because here they might feel marginalised. All Syrian kids feel marginalised and not loved."

Sciaf's emergency Christmas appeal is aimed at helping Syrian children receive the psychological support and education they need.

Sciaf director Alistair Dutton said: "Hundreds of thousands are haunted and deeply traumatised by vivid memories of the horrific things they've seen.

"Everything they saw and went through has left a whole generation emotionally scarred for life."

Millions of children in Lebanon and beyond are not in school, he added.

"They either can't face it or there are simply not enough places for them in the schools in neighbouring countries.

"Sciaf is helping as many children as we can go to school and have the books, bags and other materials they need, but we desperately need more help. That's why it's so important that people here in Scotland give whatever they can to our Syria appeal.

"Without their donations we won't be able to continue to providing the psychological therapy and education to these children."

Hanin, 13, haunted by deaths in Syria while adapting to life as refugee

Thirteen-year-old Hanin (pictured, right) left her childhood behind when her family fled Syria five years ago.

An eyewitness to the war, she is haunted by images of the deaths of her relatives and the sound of bombings as she struggles to adapt to life as a refugee in Lebanon.

"I feel great sorrow and I feel very sad, because I witnessed the death of close beloved ones," she said.

"Of course the situation in Syria is very difficult, but I can't but tell you that I have lost my childhood. I have lost a big part of my childhood that I did not get the chance to live."

Once a grade A pupil who lived in comfortable middle-class surroundings in Daraa, where the war first began, Hanin is now living with her parents, brother Ayham, 17, and sisters Farah, seven, and Amar (pictured, middle), two, in the stark basement of a former ski chalet block in Mount Lebanon, just north of Beirut.

With dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer to "help people who are living with injustice in the world", she studies day and night, falling asleep with her books.

She attends the second shift at school - an initiative which began two years ago to allow Lebanon's growing child refugee population to be educated after the normal school day ends.

But Hanin still longs for her happy life in Syria.

"Here in Lebanon we are going through tough circumstances," she said.

"We're humiliated sometimes. The education is different. The whole lifestyle is different from that in Syria.

"We are living in secure circumstances here - no bombing, no shelling. We do not fear getting killed at any time. But living in Syria was way better.

"I miss mainly the family gatherings, and playing with my cousins and playing with my friends in Syria. Having a prosperous life in Syria among all my family members - this is what I miss the most."

Her mother Ibtissam Bathish Mtaweh (pictured,left), 43, says "no-one was harmed as much as the children" by the ongoing conflict.

She is grateful for the psychological counselling that Caritas Lebanon, supported by the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (Sciaf), is providing for Hanin and Farah.

"My daughter is taking psychological support because she went through a lot," she said.

"She is always sitting by herself, she is not talking to anyone. She is crying all night. I wake up and see her crying. She tells me, 'I wake up and remember all my family members who were killed in Syria. I believe that I am stuck here and I don't have a future'.

"Sometimes she used to tell me, even under the bombing, and the shelling, and despite all the odds there, (she wants) to go back to Syria, she doesn't want to stay here."

Ibtissam's brother was kidnapped and killed, while her brother-in-law died when a bomb hit his house. Two of his daughters were also killed, while three others were badly injured.

The children remember all the details, she says.

"They always talk about it, and I guess they will not forget this incident all their lives. We were at their grandparents' house, and we heard the bomb, so we ran to the house.

"They saw all the bloodshed and they saw that their uncle was killed in this incident. Of course this will influence them now and in the long term, but once they grow up and they get to know that this was not in our hands ... maybe they will adapt.

"But to forget the things that happened, I guess this is impossible.

She added: "I believe that the kids grew really fast. They are older than their age, they did not get the chance to live their childhood.

"I feel really sad about this, I can't sleep at night.

"I personally do my best not to show them the pain that I have inside me, the sorrow and the grief that I have inside me, to keep them strong."

Refugee children relive horrors of Syria through drawings, psychologist reveals

"One girl drew a dismembered body with the torso on one side and the arms on the other," psychologist Lina Zaarour recounted.

"There is always blood featuring in all the drawings, there is always a lot of blood," she added as she described the artwork created by Syrian refugee children attending the psychosocial sessions she runs at Caritas Lebanon's Bekaa Valley centre.

The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (Sciaf) as part of the global Caritas network funds the children's programme here, aimed at helping children deal with the trauma they have experienced through arts, crafts and games.

Many have seen family members or friends killed before their eyes, others have witnessed torture, while some were there when there homes were shelled and destroyed.

Ms Zaarour begins with a "box of fear". Children are asked to draw their experiences and fears before tearing the picture up and throwing it in the box.

Then they draw the things that make them happy, and they are pinned up on the wall.

"The painting and the drawing is meant to express all the fears, the violent scenes, to portray all the people who died and the scenes that were witnessed by the children, as well as all of the tanks and the airplanes that they saw," Ms Zaarour said.

"Later we have a discussion concerning these experiences, and during that discussion the child is opening up about what he is hiding, about all of the emotions that he is trying to mask, and therefore he is letting out everything that he has built up inside."

In one session, children are asked to make a shadow puppet, then to tell a story about its feelings.

Mariam Al Azeb, 10, made a puppet called Christa.

Standing at the front of the room with the lights off and the puppet projected on to the wall, she said: "She was really happy with her family, but now she is sad because her brother and sister died. She felt really sad when they died because she felt empty and very lonely."

Ms Zaarour said: "All the children are trying, because they cannot speak about the situation, to express themselves or blow off some steam within the drawings or the games."

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Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2016, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Jane Barlow / PA Wire.