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Growing up in War

The Children of Syria

by MATHEW NASHED

“Please help me” said Fatima. “Just help me.”

Fatima is seven years old. While playing outside in Damascus, the splinter of a grenade hit her in the spinal cord. It paralyzed her from the waist down.

Dr Muhannad, a psychologist and Syrian refugee, taught Fatima how to say “please help me” in English. Pleading for assistance, he filmed her saying these words before sending the video to a German organization called, A Heart for Children.

Dr. Muhannad is wanted by the regime for treating injured civilians in Syrian field clinics. And though he was forced to flee, his activity hasn’t wavered. Over the last six months, he has headed a team of volunteers who provide psycho-social relief to children affected by the conflict.

Syria has been locked in a two year war between the Baathist regime and a fragmented opposition. Prior to the crisis, approximately four million people lived in Lebanon. Today, the government estimates that one million Syrians are now residing in the country. The refugee crisis has spilled into Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq as well. As of March 6th of this year, Save the Children, an international non-government organization (NGO), estimated that 52% of Syrians refugees were children. Most of who have lost either one or both of their parents.

In Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon, Dr. Muhannad and his team conducted a study in early February of 2013. His team surveyed 5000 Syrian children between the ages of 4-7. The results showed that 25% of kids suffered from sleeping disorders, 15% showed many signs of depression, 18% expressed heightened aggression, 12% had speech impediments, and 30% experienced uncontrollable urination.

With the help of some local NGOs, Dr. Muhannad and his staff have organized a series of psycho-social activities.

“We have to create a safe space for the kids” says Dr. Muhannad. “We’re always singing and playing games. We also encourage them to express themselves through activities such as drawing pictures.”

Yet, the pictures that most children draw are pictures of war. “Children usually draw what they have seen. They draw tanks, planes, and guns” says Dr. Muhannad.

“Sometimes they even draw the dead.”

There is evidence indicating the regime is targeting children. The government has launched systematic attacks on schools, hospitals and bakeries which have killed thousands of civilians. Beginning in July of 2012, War Child Lebanon reported that many schools had been turned into military houses by regime and anti-regime forces. In a report released on March 13th of this year, Save the Children stated that approximately two thousand schools have been damaged so far.

In the same report, Save the Children cited new research emerging out of Bahcesehir University in Turkey. The study found that one out of three children reported being shot at or hit. Three quarters of children also stated that they had seen the death of a close friend or family member.
While looking over the shoulder to see the picture that nine year old Ahmed was drawing, Dr. Muhannad asked, “Who’s the boy in the picture?”

“My old friend” replied Ahmed

While playing football in Aleppo, Ahmed kicked the ball too hard. His friend chased after it. As he was running, a sniper on the nearby roof shot him in the head.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) isn’t innocent either. Fragments of the opposition have armed children and placed them in the front lines of battle. War Child Lebanon has documented the use of child soldiers as early as July of 2012. Some of them are as young as ten years of age.

Unfortunately, the global stigma surrounding mental health has prevented some families from seeking support for their children. “Some parents, with all the other problems there facing, don’t want to accept that their children are suffering from trauma” says Dr. Muhannad.

“But I won’t stop trying. I want to ensure that the next generation is as least affected by the war as possible.”

Unfortunately, finding sponsors for psycho-social activities has been difficult. Because of the urgency for basic needs such as food, shelter and medical-care, mental health is often a secondary concern.

Fortunately, War Child Lebanon has decided to team up with Dr. Muhannad to provide more psycho-social services. Children, however, aren’t the only ones dealing with this consequence of war.

Dr. Muhannad spoke about his friend who nursed injured soldiers and civilians in Homs. “I knew Homs was destroyed. There is no Homs anymore. But when I went on my Facebook I didn’t expect to find out that he died.” Pausing for a moment, he raised his head and said, “My friend’s gone.”

In spite of the bloodshed, Dr Muhannad’s activity offers hope to others. Mutually, children like Fatima lend relief to him as well.

Despite her life altering injury, Fatima smiled in the video that was filmed and sent to Germany. She smiled even more when she heard that A Heart for Children agreed to help her.

She’s recently been taken to Germany with her father to receive special care. “Seeing her happy makes me feel better” says Dr. Muhannad.

“A child’s smile is the remedy for my trauma.”

Mathew Nashed is a writer living in Istanbul.