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Healing with art

Iraqi refugee kids in Damascus

Photo credit: Bassam Diab

This Saturday 18 December is International Migrants Day. During this week, Mashallah is publishing articles on the topic of migration, covering a few aspects of this phenomena. Today: Iraqi refugees in Syria.

Beating a drum can be a good way for a traumatised child to deal with her memories. At a community centre for Iraqi refugees in Damascus, children use various art forms to express their emotions and learn how to handle them.

From a stack of drawings, she picks one that looks almost like a piece of abstract art. Lines crisscross the paper, forming a web, which almost completely covers a stick figure. All of it is done in the same colour. Red.

“We don’t know yet how to interpret this one. The boy is six years old and he refuses to draw in any other colour than red. If you give him a crayon in another colour, he throws it away,” explains Samar al-Halah, a 26-year-old Syrian psychology student who volunteers at a community centre in Damascus run by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The little boy, an Iraqi refugee, has only recently begun to visit the centre, and the volunteers are still waiting for a chance to understand what he has gone through. The drawings might help them find the answer. Like many other Iraqi children who come here, the boy is unable to put into words what he has experienced, and might well be suffering from emotional repercussions that he is too young to understand.

Most of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees that still remain in Syria were witnesses to horrifying events before they fled their country. Stories of murder, kidnappings, rape and unspeakable acts of violence abound, and for children especially, such memories impact on their well being in very serious ways. Some suffer from depression or stress, some are aggressive and hyperactive, yet others shy and withdrawn to a point where they do not speak at all.

But, what the children cannot communicate in words, they express through drawings, music, theatre or role-playing. At the community centre, arts take centre stage in the efforts to help traumatised children. It does not matter whether their drawings are skilled or their singing in tune — it is all about the effect of artistic expression.

“The children cannot deal directly with their memories, but when they work with arts, they will subconsciously be expressing their emotions. This helps the children to open up and it allows us to get an understanding of their situation so that we can help them to recover,” explains Samar al-Halah and goes on to share a powerful story about the power of art. “One of the girls here, seven years old, was unwilling to speak a single word when she first arrived to the centre. We gave her a drum and she began banging it without any instructions. After coming here for weeks just to drum by herself, the girl started speaking. Today, she talks without end and plays with the other children.”

The Syrian and Iraqi volunteers at the centre have been trained in a psychosocial support program that has had positive impacts on refugee children all over the world. They organise support groups, in which the children get to go through a series of games and exercises designed to deal with emotions that can result from war and conflict. Each session bears a name like “Dealing with fear”, “My dream and I” or “Scary Sounds”.

During one such basic exercise, the children are asked to draw specific things, such as happy and sad faces, or a place in which they would feel safe. This way, it is often possible to find out what a child has gone through. One 11-year-old girl for instance, refused to draw any human expressions and filled her papers with monsters. As their work progressed, the volunteers were able to learn that the girl had been sexually abused. Another girl drew herself in front of her father. It turned out that this image was an expression of her guilt. She had witnessed her father getting his fingers and toes cut off and felt remorse because she had not been able to help him.

Such information helps the volunteers to locate places and people outside the centre that can further a positive development for the child. Through the sessions the children learn that their emotions, fears and anxieties are shared by their peers, and become more comfortable in dealing with them outside the safe environment of the community centre. “For refugees of all ages that come to our centre, the most important thing is understanding that their feelings are not wrong. They are normal reactions to abnormal events. For children, this is very important in order for them to function socially and develop like other children. Many of have lost trust in other humans, and easily get into conflicts. The sessions help them to regain that trust and find ways to handle their emotions around other people,” says Karin Eriksen, a delegate from the Danish Red Cross who works with the program.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent runs the program at five community centres around Syria, but with several hundred thousand Iraqis living in Syria, they are only able to help a fraction of these. Prices have more than doubled in Syria since the refugees arrived, and today 40 percent of them have to survive on less than $1 a day. The worsening living conditions has meant that the number of Iraqi children dropping out of school has risen by 30 percent in the last year. Many children have to spend the day working to support their families and never get help to deal with their traumas. This could seriously harm their chances of building a life for themselves in a future that is already destined to be full of uncertainties and challenges.

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