A drawing by Khalil, 11, who was displaced with his family in 2012 from Al-Yarmouk camp in 2012. The camp was home to the largest Palestinian refugee population in Syrian Arab Republic before the war.
Photo: UNICEF/UN058015/Khalil

“Rebuilding lives” – more support for traumatised children from crisis regions

At an international conference organised by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in Berlin/Germany, experts from governments, the UN, civil society and relief organisations called for more support for programmes addressing the mental health and psychosocial measures for children in crisis areas.

Germany’s Development Minister Gerd Müller was in Mosul/Iraq in June. Iraq is one of the countries that have been devastated by war and faces a difficult period of reconstruction and rehabilitation. In the ruins of Mosul, Müller met “children with laughing eyes”. But although their eyes may be laughing, deep inside they haven’t forgotten what happened. The Daesh fighters had placed the children on roofs as human shields. A clap of thunder is enough to remind them of bombs and bombers.

A notion of what normal life is like

Early in July, the BMZ and Unicef discussed support for traumatised children and youths in crisis areas with representatives from countries such as Iraq, Jordan and South Sudan. “Rebuilding lives” was the motto of local psychosocial support programmes in the refugee camps that were designed to give children a notion of what normal life is like.

In late June, Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore visited Yemen and brought a picture by children with her to Berlin. One girl had painted the place she wished to be in – with solid houses, her family, a car and a set of traffic lights, even though there are no longer any traffic lights in Yemen.

For 250 million children, civil war, dead people, ruins and the absence of schools or any prospects for the future are a reality. Children are the ones who are most likely to be uprooted by armed conflict and remain traumatised for the rest of their lives. “Continuous confrontation with violence, fear and insecurity can have a disastrous impact on the ability to learn, the behaviour and the emotional and social development of children. Without assistance, toxic stress caused by witnessing or suffering traumatising events can lead to bedwetting, self-destructive behaviour, aggression, withdrawal, depressions, drug abuse and even suicide,” the Unicef representative said.

A glimpse of hope

Fore told the conference about children who would first of all paint destroyed houses and dead people. Once they start using their crayons to draw the first trees on the paper, this is a giant step forward.

In South Sudan, over a two-year period, 800 child soldiers were “demilitarised”. According to Fore, this is merely a drop in the ocean, for she believes that there are roughly 90,000 more child soldiers in the region. This is not the only indication of the mega tasks that the international community ought to deal with. Eight years of civil war have traumatised more than one generation of children for their whole lives. Georg Graf Waldersee of Unicef Germany declared: “There are too many crises. Far too many crises that last far too long!” Prospects remained dramatic, and by 2030, every third child would be living in a failed state.

Demand growing faster than donations

According to Director Fore, public and private donations are on the increase. However, she notes that demand is growing even faster than the donations. Next to the USA, Germany is the second largest financer of Unicef. Just five countries provide 90 per cent of the total budget.

According to Müller, psychosocial support for children in crisis areas is not new to the BMZ. Over the last two years, around 130,000 children were provided with assistance via its programmes. Between 2013 and 2017, 648,000 Lebanese and Syrian children received formal and informal school education in Lebanon. A total of 45,000 children entered child protection programmes, and more than 26,000 girls benefited from measures countering gender-based violence. In Iraq, 43,000 children around Mosul took part in psychosocial programmes, Müller said.

This year, Unicef seeks to provide access to psychosocial support for 3.9 million children – for example in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan. Community-based mental health measures and psychosocial assistance such as sport, art or games and providing a supporting environment are to stabilise the children, promote their mental wellbeing and improve their protection.

Roland Krieg, journalist, Berlin/Germany 

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