– 12 March 2019
Syria marks eight years of civil war: ‘These children are not passive victims, but survivors’
SOS Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Advisor, Teresa Ngigi, describes how eight years of civil war have impacted Syrian children – and the vital role SOS Children’s Villages plays in caring for children who have lost parental care.
“A few months ago, I was in Damascus when a bombardment struck the city in the middle of the night. I witnessed the horror of the children I work with as they heard the explosions – saw their helplessness and fear.
It is true that children can be resilient and bounce back quite fast after such experiences, but not while they continue to live through it, when they are still being terrorised and their life remains so uncertain.
Almost all the children in SOS Children’s Villages’ care in Syria have experienced toxic stress in one form or another. Many have suffered the consequences of war, hatred, and disaster, and most have experienced some form of abandonment.
I work with children whose parents have died or simply disappeared, leaving them all alone. Many of them don’t understand their circumstances. They do not know whether their parents are alive or dead, which can sometimes be worse than being certain they are gone forever. Some have been moved from one caregiver to another or have lived on the streets until they found a home through our programmes.
That is why our family tracing work is so important. We need to reunite children with their families whenever possible, or at the very least give them closure. A child who is not connected to a family can experience a crisis of identity - they lack a sense of belonging. Often, they can become hyperactive. Not the normal hyperactivity of toddlers, but hyperactivity characterised by a lot of aggression.
We have one boy in our care who was six years old when the war started. He saw his father killed when a bomb hit their house. His mother disappeared, and his brother ran away - he was left alone. He was captured and endured terrible experiences, before ending up on the streets.
By the time he came into our care, he had many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as other mental health challenges and was very aggressive. We are working with him to reassure him of our unconditional acceptance, but it is a long process that requires patience and dedication.
My time in Syria has had a very powerful effect on me, both professionally and personally. As a therapist I thought I knew everything I could know about trauma but working in a country torn apart by conflict has taught me different. Being constantly in touch with people who are living with the effects of trauma, and who continue to be traumatised every day, is eye-opening.
But the resilience of the people, adults and children alike, never ceases to impress me. They are living through experiences that would crush other people, yet they carry on.
I work with caregivers who have dedicated their lives to helping these children, shielding them as much as possible from anything that could destabilise them. And despite everything they have endured, the children have been able to bond with their caregivers. It is amazing but many of them are thriving. These children are not passive victims, but survivors. They have been able to rediscover who they are and learn to trust adults again.
This is one of the greatest lessons I have learnt in Syria. The resilience, the growth, and the capacity to find meaning when there is no meaning. That makes me feel there is hope.”
Teresa Ngigi travels regularly to Syria to train our psychological and social support teams and provide support for Syrian children in SOS care. She has counselled children in emergency situations worldwide, including the 2017 Sierra Leone mudslides and in Somalia.
SOS Children’s Villages has been supporting vulnerable children and families in Syria for forty years. The international children’s charity has been operating an emergency relief programme in the region since the conflict began, caring for children who have lost parental care and working to reunite them with their remaining families. They have also provided emergency aid including food, sanitation, shelter and health services.
As displaced Syrian families begin to return to their homes, SOS Children’s Villages is providing long-term and development assistance that will help strengthen the psychological and economic resilience of war-affected children, young people and families – rebuilding schools and providing mental health and practical support.