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Syrian children haunted by nightmares

One family's story reveals the everyday suffering behind the statistics
One family's story reveals the everyday suffering behind the statistics

Sabeen and her children were forced to move from Homs to Damascus following death threats. Modar, her 6-year-old son, suffered from nightmares after the trauma they experienced. Find out why the SOS child-friendly space in Damascus has become a sanctuary for the family.

By the end of the year, it's estimated that 9.3 million people inside Syria will be in need of humanitarian assistance. This includes 6.5 million Syrians who have been internally displaced, 46% of whom are children. Over 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict. 

The statistics are startling. Yet we can struggle to translate these figures into the suffering experienced. Since the violence first erupted in 2011, updates from Syria have been continuous. As thousands turned into millions, it has been easy to loose sight of the individual lives affected. 

Here, we bring you the story of one family who has been internally displaced in Syria. Their experience reveals the terror and the daily anxieties behind the rising statistics.

Death was all around us

Sabeen has three young children - two girls and a boy. Now living in Damascus, they had to flee Homs to escape death threats against the family.

“We were like most of the people under siege in Homs. We were living in an area that was under heavy bombing all the time. There were clashes between armed troops day and night, death was all around us. The smell of dead bodies piling up in the streets was unbearable for me and my children. 
We rarely had any electricity and our food supplies were almost finished. This worsened after my husband lost his source of income as a carpenter because his workshop was destroyed. We used to spend most of our nights standing in the bathroom, scared of the bombing. My children dropped out of school and we all became trapped at home. 
Sisters in Damascus
My husband was threatened many times that if he didn't join the armed militias, they would kill us. After this threat we decided to leave the city once and for all, seeking safety in Damascus like most of our relatives. Now we are living in very poor conditions, but at least we feel safer than before. My husband works at daily jobs to earn us our daily bread.”

A space to be children again

We met Sabeen when she came to our centre in Damascus after seeking a safe place for her children to play. Sabeen's new neighbour told her about the SOS child-friendly space in Damascus. The SOS centre was set up to support children and their parents during the ongoing violence in the country, and give Syrian children a chance to enjoy their childhood.

When the three children - Modar (6), Aya (7) and Hind (8) - first visited the SOS centre, they were shy and fearful of interacting with other children. Hind, the eldest child, was protective of her younger siblings, as if she had taken on the role of mother when Sabeen wasn't around. “She has lost her sense of childhood,” her mother said. Hind would watch Aya and Modar play, but not get involved herself. 

Nightmares and insomnia

Our centre in Damascus offers counselling sessions to children and their parents. It was during these sessions that an SOS specialist found out Sabeen's children were not sleeping well. “I always dream of bad men who want to take me and my sisters away from our mummy", said 6-year-old Modar.

CFS Damascus

Sabeen had been desperate to help her children to sleep at night, so had been giving them sleeping pills. She admitted that, “after a while, even the medication didn't help them sleep sometimes.”

The three siblings began visiting the SOS centre on a daily basis. Gradually, they felt more comfortable playing with other children, and taking part in the activities. Hind started to feel happy to leave her younger siblings playing, while she participated in other games. Most importantly, their fear and feelings of insecurity reduced and they sleep better at night - with no more sleeping pills.

Looking to the future

Our child-friendly space in Damascus offers a range of activities for children, led by trained volunteers. These include storytelling, playing music, a science club and a book club, cultural heritage games, LEGO, and cinema. As well as giving children a chance to learn and play, these activities are designed to help children process and overcome their traumatic experiences.

For example, one activity is storytelling using puppets. It is fun for the children to host a puppet show, while allowing them to express their feelings, fears and hopes through puppets. The stories that Modar, Aya and Hind told when they first arrived focused on the sorrow they had witnessed. 

Over time, the pattern of their storytelling has changed, and they now express more positive narratives, such as what they want to be in the future and daily life in their new city. Although not enrolled in school, SOS Children has provided them with books, to help them get back on track to rejoin school next year. 

Each child known by name

Storytelling with puppets at a CFS in Damascus

The SOS child-friendly space in Damascus has reached out to over 1,100 children between the ages of 5 and 15, including four children with special needs. Each child's needs are assessed, and supported through our activities and services. 

Every Saturday, 50-60 children from SOS Children's Village Damascus, which is in a suburb of the city, visit the centre. It's an opportunity for them to join in the activities and play with children from other communities.  

Numbers have been growing at the SOS child-friendly space, especially after the introduction of a programme which specifically supports the psychological and social needs of children. This programme is particularly beneficial for children experiencing behavioural disorders as a result of the conflict.

The children and families who we support in Damascus are included in the statistics that come out of Syria. They are included in the millions who need humanitarian assistance and have been internally displaced. But to our staff, they are more than statistics. Each child we support is known by their name, and each family has their own story of suffering. 

Syrian children and their parents are living in a harsh reality. Winter is biting, and the conflict around them is not ceasing. We are supporting them in our child-friendly space, and provide blankets and coats to keep warm. Support our emergency appeal today and help children in Syria to stop having nightmares. 

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