Syrian children traumatized by the ongoing war in their country seek relief from the scars the brutal conflict has left on their psyches at a new rehabilitation center in Istanbul
As part of art therapy, Syrian children are encouraged to draw at the center to express their feelings.
Mina, a shy and quiet eight-year-old from Damascus, is a troubled child. When she dreams, she sees dead bodies on the walls and is too frightened to go to the bathroom alone.
Now in Istanbul, she speaks of how a dead body lay in front of her Damascus home for weeks as people were too afraid to move it. Later, her home was hit by a bomb, forcing her to hide in the bathroom with her family.
These shattering experiences have contributed to her lasting distress and anxiety.
Mina draws a picture of a garden where children are playing with their friends; they all have happy faces except one little girl who is alone and looks very sad.
She is just one of an estimated 2 million children – among a total of 5.5 million affected by the Syrian conflict – who are in need of psychological support or treatment, according to UNICEF.
Doctors at Istanbul’s recently opened Psycho-Social Rehabilitation Center in Fatih encourage the children in their care to express their trauma through art.
“Children’s language is symbolic; they need toys, paper and crayons to express themselves,” says Tuğba Öztürk, one of the psychologists at the center, which was opened in June.
“Thus if a child has a problem with herself or her friends, she reflects the problems in her drawing,” she says.
“If there is a war image in her mind, for example, she starts to draw about it. That moment is significant for us, because it means the child lives her trauma again in a safe place.”
This wave of untreated child trauma led two volunteer psychologists to come together two years ago in Istanbul to establish a rehabilitation center for refugees who have been trying to rebuild their lives.
The center was opened in June 2015, in cooperation with London-based Muntada Aid and the Alliance of International Doctors (AID), for Syrian refugee children and women.
The project aims to allow children aged between six and 12 to talk about or express their feelings about traumatic events in a safe environment. The center provides art therapy alongside individual psychotherapy.
Organizers want to reach 60 refugees every six months:
“There is a huge number of these people in Turkey. One of our main goals is to be an example and to popularize our work in order to help more people,” says Hilal Mete, another psychologist at the rehabilitation center.
However, given the huge number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, the center’s capacity is not sufficient to help more than around 120 people a year.
Around the world, some city-dwellers look with an evil eye at refugees as though they are indigent or dirty people, so education has become an important focus in the refugee issue.
Turkey is home to nearly 2 million Syrian refugees, the U.N. has reported.
As Mete says: “No one knows anything about Syrian children’s lives, no one knows their names and, hence, they are just ‘Syrians’ to them. We have to be the example to overcome this prejudice.
“I know the life story of each child in the center and they are not just a ‘Syrian’ to me; they are children who need help for their trauma,” she adds.
Every type of war causes psychological breakdown, especially for children.
Mina’s father is a writer and her mother is an academic but their life changed suddenly when they were forced to flee to Turkey a year ago.
“After I met Mina she started to describe her drawing,” says psychologist Öztürk, quoting Mina: “That unhappy girl is me, everyone has friends but I am alone because no one wants to be friends with me.”
Some experts have claimed that a child’s social background plays a significant part in his or her experience of trauma.
“Parental socioeconomic status may affect a child’s educational outcomes through a number of pathways, one of which is the child’s health” wrote two academics, Janet Currie and Joshua Goodman in a 2010 article for the International Encyclopedia of Education.
A senior child psychologist in Gaza, writing as far back as 1999, identified how a child’s family background could influence how they felt trauma. In research from 1999, Abdel Aziz Mousa Thabet wrote: “Children reported high rates of significant anxiety problems associated with socioeconomic deprivation.”
According to research, social and economic conditions determine the level of trauma, something borne out by Mina’s experiences.
On the other hand, another reaction is the “socially withdrawn behavior” of post-traumatic symptoms in children aged six and younger, says the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Back in the Istanbul center, there are children aged between six and 12 who are there to draw a picture or attend a workshop.
A drawing by eight-year-old Meram Hacci reveals little because the scrawls on her page are almost meaningless.
“These children are witnesses to a civil war going on for four years and if a child goes through a trauma, her or his psychological balance completely breaks down. That kind of a breakdown is a very serious regression for a child’s development,” says Öztürk.
Another patient is 10-year-old Aya. At first, she refused to join the doctors’ workshops and was withdrawn and uncooperative, unlike the others, adds Ozturk.
However, after treatment, she is more talkative and wants to show off the little cakes she has made from putty like any regular child.
Özturk tells how Aya has changed with therapy and workshops, and in time, got closer to the center’s staff.
However, some children still draw armless and legless human figures, complete with frightening faces.
Nine-year-old Nagam Yusif’s picture shows three screaming people with bulging eyes and their hair standing on end.
However, Mina, Meram, Aya and Nagam are lucky; they have been given the chance of psychological help through which they can share their wartime memories and emotions.
For millions of other children, scarred by this brutal conflict, healing may come much later-if at all.