Nothing could have prepared me for that building in Irbid in Northern Jordan, close to the Syrian border. A 24-apartment block, home to only widows, single mothers and their children; close to 200 people.
I ended up spending three days listening to and documenting their stories. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen to us”, said one mother. “My son has been scared since he was born”, said another. “I miss going to school”, says a six year old.
So many of the children that I’ve met and talked to in past days, express themselves like grownups. Their body language is also not that of children but of adults. They move slowly, not as most children would. Save the Children has found that three in four Syrian children have lost a close friend or a relative as the Syria conflict now enters its third year.
Smiling faces of children welcome me when I enter the building. After all, these are some of the lucky ones. They escaped the violence in time. And once again, I am reminded of how strong and resilient children actually are. Some of the children in that building have been going to Save the Children’s and ECHO’s (European Commission’s Department for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protectection) psychosocial workshops, which aims to bring back some sence of normalcy to the children’s lives.
The facilitators, parents and children alike will tell you that the difference after only a few sessions, is remarkable. And that it takes so little to have them bounce back. “Their parents may be processing the war or grieving a lost child, not realizing the needs of their remaining children, just as traumatised as themselves”, one of the Save the Children’s facilitators tells me. And this is where the workshops make a difference.
The children in the building talk about what they have witnessed; some with more ease than others, but what they will tell you is something that even adults would have difficulty processing.
The setting is nearly always the same. There are mattresses on the floor; blankets, rugs. Maybe an ash tray, tea cups, and a Syrian flag. Most of the flats are somewhat empty. In one corner you’ll see a television set, blasting news on Syria, the most recent fighting, the newest updates on number of deaths. Many families will show you photos on their mobiles of the relatives they’ve lost, photos of children.
My limited Arabic gives my interviewees something to smile at, and therefore I use it consciously. A sudden laughter can ease the tension that has built up. The sweet tea or the Arabic coffee that is always served, serves the same purpose. Talking about loss of lives, loss of dignity, the escape, needs, early healing and regaining some strength and dignity – is not easy.
Nearly all want to talk. “Why should I stay silent and not tell my story? This is something the world ought to know,” Reem says, mother of three, one of the widows in the building says. Initially she didn’t want to talk, but thirty minutes later, she comes back and says she has thought things through.
Reem tells me how tough she finds it having to stay strong in front of her children. “And then last night, my son Mohamad saw me crying”. Save the Children’s facilitators will tell both children and parents that addressing grievances and sorrow, crying, sharing fears and talking about lost ones, is a part of a healing process.
The psychosocial workshops also benefit Jordanians. The communities in Jordan hosting the exodus of refugees were among the poorest and the most vulnerable in the entire country even before the refugee crisis. So now, the aim is to ease adaptation and break down barriers between Jordanians and Syrians; an aim that is becoming increasingly important as the crisis drags on, the numbers rise, the resources in host communities dwindle and as a consequence – reciprocal tolerance may decrease.
In fact, as the burden of host communities has grown, so have the numbers of clashes between them and refugee communities. That fact makes it even more important that our workshops are attended by both Jordanian and Syrian children. “The differences between what a Syrian child and a Jordanian child will draw, is staggering”, a facilitator tells me. “The Syrian child just escaped from a war zone, the Jordanian child only knows peace.” But slowly, day by day, the drawings done at the workshop by the Syrian children start resembling those of the Jordanians.
By Hedinn Halldorsson
Save The Children’s Emergency Communication Manager