A healing place for kids

This week’s guest writer is  Doreen Martens, a freelance writer. Her piece originally appeared in the MCC Lebanon/Syria blog under the title, “Psychosocial program helps Syrian refugee kids in Lebanon.”

Tyre, Lebanon––A boy of about 10 cups in his hands in front of his face, imagining in them a little bird waiting to hear what he most misses about his home back in Syria. “All my toys,” he whispers in Arabic. Then, with a shy smile, he flings his arms wide, releasing the imaginary bird into the sky with a wish that the bird will fly over his old home and say hello to his toys.

The next boy in the circle does the same, whispering to the bird that he misses his two older brothers, who have gone elsewhere to find work. The bird flies off to visit his brothers.

The game is a healing exercise for about 30 Syrian refugee children gathered today in a sunny walled courtyard, all coping with the pain and loss of fleeing the life they once knew.

Here in southern Lebanon, their families have found some measure of peace, but struggle daily, against growing tensions with the host community, to find any kind of work and to feed and shelter their children.

This psychosocial program, operated in three locations, is funded by Mennonite Central Committee and run by its local partner, Popular Aid for Relief and Development. It brings kids aged 7 to 12 together weekly for a kind of mental-health day, a break from their troubles: to have fun, play games, get to know one another and build trust and social cohesion.

It helps break the isolation many children feel, as well as detect and fend off negative responses to trauma, such as violence in families.

Layal Al Ali and Fadia Dahshe.  MCC photo

At the beginning, says Fadia Dahshe, coordinator of the program, most of the kids “didn’t know each other before. Now they’re starting to talk to each other.”

She recalls that they all refused to play with a boy who, as some hungry refugees are forced to do, earned a little money by collecting people’s household garbage, for about 65 cents U.S. per home. “Now,” she says, “they’re starting to accept him.”

Activities they do together are fun, but also teach things like trust and problem-solving.

A leader places some plastic markers on the pavement to create a little maze. One of the girls is blindfolded and told to follow instructions from the other kids to help her find her way through. Hesitantly, she steps forward as the others jump up, point and enthusiastically shout directions in Syrian-accented Arabic ––  “Left!  Right! Forward!” ––  eager to see her succeed. When she makes it through, everyone laughs and cheers. Suddenly, these shy kids are a team.

PARD project manager Rashid El Mansi says the program, now in its second year, concentrates on kids with highest needs for this kind of support –– some 200 kids from eight gatherings. The program also includes components of health awareness –– supported by puppet shows –– first aid training, and computer and English programs for older kids. PARD representatives went to all the gatherings in the area to put together a list of kids facing particular struggles, such as the two daughters whose father, out of exaggerated fears, refuses to let them out of the home except to go to the mosque.

“We’re also trying to aid inclusion and integration of children from different groups and reduce bullying and conflict, to make friends with each other and spend time together outside of the program.”

The boys and girls come from what’s known locally as “gatherings,” unofficial refugee communities that have swelled with the Syrian influx near long-established Palestinian refugee camps. Some live crammed into tiny, sparsely furnished rented rooms, others in informal tented communities scattered around the rural areas where they have found landholders willing to rent them a patch of earth.

Unlike Jordan and Turkey, the government here has not allowed the establishment of formal UN-run camps, so well over 1 million Syrians are scattered around the country among a host population of just 4.5 million, with few services available to help them and few opportunities to find work.

Under the economic and social pressures of hosting so many, prejudices and tensions –– and a sort of social pecking order among Lebanese, long-time Palestinian residents, Syrians and Syrian Palestinian newcomers –– are extra barriers to a peaceful co-existence. Bringing children together from these groups is one way to build peace.

For Dahshe, helping the kids extends to empowering their mothers, who carry a huge burden of trying to keep life and limb together, and often fail to take care of their own mental-health needs.  She gathers moms to talk about their troubles and to help them take an active role in their communities –– sometimes taking a group session to the home of a woman reluctant to go out on her own.

Many struggle with questions about how to discipline their children; some with depression; and many with the trauma of war, like the woman who, fearful about scraping up rent, had nightmares about a man destroying her house and raping her daughters.

“We encourage them to forget their children for a minute and think about yourself. Because they never think about self-care,” Dahshe says. Amid the endless round of work to care for their families, she encourages them to take at least 10 or 15 minutes a day to do something that relaxes them. Happier mothers will make for happier children, she believes.

For the kids, she says, “it doesn’t have to be so complicated.” Give them a healthy environment and they will flourish.

Back in the courtyard, the children are all getting blindfolds and being told the name of an animal they will pretend to be in the next game. Then they have to circulate in a crowd, making animal noises to find the rest of their herd.

Soon they’re finding each other, laughing and hugging in big happy groups of goats and elephants –– blinded, literally, to what makes them different.


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