Children who live in conflict areas witness the impact of war, such as violence or injury of a family member, and may experience other traumas such as sexual harassment or domestic violence.

Islamic Relief is now offering support to refugee children who have fled from Syria to Lebanon. As refugees, their wellbeing can be affected by ongoing problems such as with shelter, health, education, and security, as well as adapting to change and facing discrimination.

One project, which is one of six recent and ongoing programmes being run by Islamic Relief in Lebanon, has supported 1,187 Syrian refugee children and 335 families in Saida, in south Lebanon.

Children afraid, sad and feeling isolated

Children playing together as part of the project

Children playing together as part of the project

Trauma can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Cognitive signs include a poor self image, disturbing memories and the reliving of traumatic experiences; emotional ones can be feelings of sadness, helplessness, fear, anger, irritability and anxiety. Behavioural indicators include social withdrawal, bed wetting, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite and insomnia.

Islamic Relief carried out research looking at the extent of trauma evident among children in Saida. Of the 1,076 participants, 23 per cent displayed increased anxiety, 19 per cent had depression and 15 per cent had developed aggressive behaviour. In smaller quantities, the children also suffered nightmares, regularly wet the bed, no longer played, rarely smiled, had difficulty concentrating and had lost their appetite.

A child psychologist visited families to identify the children needing psychological treatment, and found many in Saida were afraid and sad, had low self-esteem, felt isolated, and worried.

Islamic Relief took on 13 volunteers to help run supportive sessions with the children. A mixture of refugees and local people, they were trained on mental health, psychosocial tools, and child protection practices, including identification of problems, support and referral to specialists.

Children playing as part of the project

Children playing as part of the project

In the sessions, different methods were used to rebuild a sense of safety and stability before asking children what they had experienced and their emotions about the events they have witnessed. These included expressive therapy and creative writing, puppet theatre, psychodrama and play therapy. Children were divided into groups according to age.

Some days, they played ball games, or sang their favourite songs, evoking soothing emotions and positive memories. On others, they learned life skills, such as how to play in a team and how to express feelings and ambitions. Other activities included drawing, writing and drama. These were designed to help them express their difficult emotions and discover coping mechanisms.

We must not lose a generation

Children are encouraged to write creatively as a coping mechanism.

Children are encouraged to write creatively as a coping mechanism.

Mohammed Ammar, country director for Islamic Relief’s office in Lebanon, said: “Children torn from their homes, many who have witnessed unspeakable cruelties, are living without physical protection and psychosocial support. Without education, protection, and support, these children are at risk of losing hope and of accepting violence as normal and replicating it.

“The global community must be more strategic in its planning and direction, and take steps now to prevent a lost generation. Islamic Relief’s office in Lebanon has intervened and provided support for more than 1,000 children, but many more children are in dire need of protection and resilience building.”

The initial findings of the scheme showed a positive impact on children’s wellbeing. Those taking part in drama therapy, for example, showed more willingness to participate and interact with others. Others had increased self-esteem, better concentration and improved eye contact.

Families were included in the programme, and were encouraged not to turn to corporal punishment but to offer more emotional and physical support.

Islamic Relief runs many psychosocial schemes globally, including in Central African Republic, Gaza, Bosnia, and Pakistan.