Trauma harms long-term prospects for Syria’s children

The trauma of war has left Syrian children with feelings of rootlessness and anxiety that could worsen during their lifetimes if left untreated, a stress expert has warned.

Global charity Save the Children has released drawings made by young Syrian refugees as they transit through Italy. The 500 pictures, which depict the children’s experience of war and flight to Europe, were analysed for the psychological impact of the conflict. “We used a specific methodology to analyse the human figures [the children drew]. You can see from the facial expressions, for example, that the child was really in terror,” said Vittoria Ardino, president, Italian Society for the Study of Traumatic Stress, who analysed the pictures. Many of the figures were drawn floating around the page, rather than standing on the ground, reflecting a sense of rootlessness and hopelessness, she added. “Their psychological wellbeing needs to be addressed. If it is not, then when they reach adolescence they might, for example, have issues of anti-social behaviour or substance abuse problems due to untreated post-traumatic symptoms.” [caption id="attachment_2507" align="alignnone" width="740"]Credit: Save the Children UK Credit: Save the Children[/caption]   More than 42,000 Syrian migrants reached Italy by crossing the Mediterranean in 2014, including 10,965 children. There are more than 2 million refugee children in the region, according to the charity. ‘Unforgettable symbols: Syrian children draw their escape’, is an online collection of drawings, gathered from children by the charity’s staff at Milan’s Central Station, Italy. The station is a popular transit hub for families waiting to journey on to northern European countries. The drawings are grouped in five sections: war, travel, context of experiences, human figures and symbols. [caption id="attachment_2504" align="alignnone" width="740"]Credit: Save the Children Credit: Save the Children[/caption]   Last week the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released figures for global displacement in 2014. The study found more than half the world’s refugees are children, some 51 per cent, up 10 per cent from 2009 figures and the highest level in more than a decade. Ardino stressed younger children are more at risk of the long-term effects of traumatic experiences. “A child of, say, three years old doesn’t have a complete emotional understanding of the world yet, they don’t have a robust enough framework to interpret the events. At times of interpersonal trauma, they tend to develop a sense of guilt and they think they are the ultimate cause of the trauma,” she said. “For child victims of war, we need to remember that very often the parents are traumatised too, so the attachment figure is not as able to give a secure base for the child, to function as an emotional regulator for the child to feel safe.” While no clear diagnosis for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) could be made just from the drawings, symptoms of psychological trauma were evident, said Ardino. “It’s not enough to assure [children] a form of care. They need appropriate care, evidence-based treatment for trauma related issues, or the symptoms can worsen across their lifespan,” she said. “It’s not enough just to talk with these children or offer them some form of psychotherapy. We need to be very careful to offer the right treatment at the right moment.” Still, some of the drawings were less bleak. While many showed bombs and destroyed buildings, as well as overcrowded refugee boats, some children drew their homeland as a green and peaceful place. These pictures demonstrated an element of hope for the future, according to Ardino. [caption id="attachment_2500" align="alignnone" width="740"]Credit: Save the Children Credit: Save the Children[/caption]   The children most at risk continue to be those inside Syria, emphasised the charity. “In northern Syria, we have set up 15 safe spaces that are attended by around 7,500 children on a regular basis,” said Soha Ellaithy, senior director of Save the Children in the Gulf. “These spaces offer children structured learning and play that enhance their resilience and gives them the opportunity to get back to a sense of normalcy.” “We also sincerely hope that those generous donors who have been supportive of Syrian children will continue to maintain their support to enable NGOs to continue to reach every Syrian child with the help they need,” Ellaithy added. The numbers of people forced from their homes through violence and persecution reached another record high last year. The pace of displacement has accelerated since 2011 in large part because of war in Syria, said the UN. Syria is the biggest producer of internally displaced persons and refugees, with 7.6 million and 3.88 million in 2014, respectively. One in every five displaced persons worldwide is Syrian, according to UNHCR.