Syrian refugee children fleeing a war zone to come to Canada will need teachers and other professionals to help them to feel safe so they can resume normal childhood activities, experts say.
Refugee children will arrive after a long flight, uprooted to an unfamiliar environment where it's to be expected they may express their anxiety through nightmares, bedwetting, lack of appetite, headache or stomach aches in the first month.
Those are all expressions of a normal experience to an abnormal circumstance, said Dr. Cécile Rousseau, a clinical psychiatrist at the Montreal Children's Hospital who consults with school boards on refugee children.
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Children are resilient and it's only if symptoms don't disappear after a month that professionals should consider stepping in, Rousseau said. In the meantime, she's focused on providing support to the caretakers.
"I'm insisting on the fact at this moment on training the interpreters so that they don't burn, training the nurses and social workers who will be at the initial assessment work, training the school teacher who will receive the child," said Rousseau.
"It's very important because if the kids feel whole, if they feel safe, they will do well. If they feel people around them are getting very anxious because of what they experienced, they may withdraw."
Providing children and youth with a safe environment, with established routines and a normal and healthy environment is the number one treatment for children coming from a war zone where they may have experienced horrors such as beheadings or grieving the loss of relatives and friends, she said.
It's also important to provide children and youth with a space to talk and express themselves, such as through art, without feeling embarrassed or hurt.
Build rapport with families
But children who've survived war will not start telling you their personal experiences immediately, said Mbalu Lumor, manager of community engagement at Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture in Toronto.
On arrival, it's important to build a sense of safety with refugee families. "Once you build that trust and rapport, especially with the parents, adults then will refer their children to come in to access all of the services we have for the children and youth program here," said Lumor.
The centre offers language classes geared to survivors of war and torture, services like homework classes, as well as trauma assessments and counselling by psychologists, a psychiatrist and other staff.
"To come to a new country, it's very important for us to be ready to support them to provide safe and stable consistent activities. Whether it's support within the school system to ensure they're well supported by the teachers, getting them involved in and engaged in recreational activities, leadership activities, that way they can lead a normal life here," Lumor said.
At the Toronto District School Board, staff are working to make the transition for the new students from Syria as smooth as possible.
"What don't want to have happen is that they'll be placed in one school and then another school and another school," said Marcia Powers-Dunlop, the board's senior manager of professional support services. "I don't want us to smother them because we're so anxious to help."
Canada's plan is to bring 10,000 more refugees to this country in the next five weeks.