Helping Children Heal During Wartime

January 23, 2013
Ara Yoo is a Program Specialist for UNICEF UK. Jane MacPhail shows me a mountain of drawings from Syrian refugee children at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. We go through them together, and I notice that they are mostly happy looking drawings with no guns, tanks or blood. The drawings are of homes, family members, flowers, butterflies, books and tables full of food. One girl drew a hand covered in henna with a ring on one of the fingers—perhaps her dream of getting married one day. Imagining a World Without War Jane is a UNICEF Child Protection Specialist. She makes the 1.5 hour journey to Za’atari every day. Jane works with children to draw and imagine a world without war. “Syrian children have been through too much,” she says. “Over the course of the past 22 months, children witnessed war, shelling, injuries and torture. They have had to leave their homes and country with the little they could carry. They’ve lost a sense of identity and hope.”
Syrian refugees in Za'atari refugee camp
Both bundled in winter clothing, a girl holds an infant in Za’atari, a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1726/Al-Masri

Dealing with Profound Stress Jane explains that children under profound stress lose a sense of belonging and security. “They do not feel pain or hunger. They switch to a survival and basic instinct mode, dealing with flight, fight and freeze. Their ability to reason, assess risk and empathize is diminished. They become emotionally detached, focusing solely on instant needs and gratification. I saw children in the camp fighting violently and throwing stones at each other. The prolonged exposure to violence takes a toll on their health and behavior. They become aggressive and experience withdrawal and defiance.” This is where Jane comes in. She trains NGO and Jordanian Government staff on how to deal with profound stress and initiate and sustain emotional dialogue with children. Through activities carried out at the child-friendly spaces, they help children reconnect emotionally, to identify even the simplest things, such as being happy or sad. She tells me the story of a girl at the camp. She’s often beaten up by her peers and is isolated and withdrawn. Yet, although there is a language barrier between the girl and Jane, they connect with each other through emotional dialogue whenever they see each other. One day, the girl walked up to Jane as she came into the child-friendly space. The girl took Jane’s hand and kissed her on both cheeks. “She then touched my cheek. It was a moment of bliss. I knew she was going to be okay,” Jane says. Leaving Survival Mode There is no way to know how long it can take for a child to be able to reconnect to her- or himself and others. But working with children and parents now will have an incredible impact on the rest of their lives. Children and parents alike need to re-learn how to play, talk about feelings and switch back from survival mode. The psychosocial activities that UNICEF is conducting at the child-friendly spaces are as crucial and lifesaving as water, food, warm clothes and vaccines. Their impact may look less visible and immediate than a latrine or a school building, but in the long-term they could prove to be even more important.