Syrian children in refugee camps struggle with mental scars of war
'I saw so many bad things in Syria': Many children in refugee camps struggle with violent memories
When Fatima al-Lawoz first fled with her family to Lebanon to escape the war in Syria, she did not want to make any new friends.
Fatima, just shy of her teenage years, was scarred when she witnessed the death of her best friend in Syria three years ago. She worried that if she made new friends, she'd see them die too.
"It's hard for me to forget. I saw so many bad things in Syria," Fatima said.
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She's unsure whether it was a sniper's bullet that killed her friend — the memories are still painful for Fatima. She was walking with the girl to the market to fetch food for her family in Homs, a Syrian city devastated by the country's civil war. Fatima went into a shop, heard a noise behind her, and when she turned around she saw her friend lying dead in the street.
Lebanon is now home to about 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Just over half are children. And only a quarter of them attend Lebanese school regularly.
So, aid organizations have tried to fill the gap.
Fatima spends several hours a week at a kind of drop-in centre for Syrian refugees, in the town of Saad Nayel in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. It's a place for education and entertainment.
One class filled with five- and six-year-olds was being taught how to best get along with others. Lessons of tolerance and coexistence are essential to help these children cope, instructors say.
"Without love, without respect for these children, you can't do anything," said Maria Assi, the CEO of Beyond, the Lebanese aid organization that runs the centre.
"This whole generation is damaged. They saw a lot. They saw that their country is damaged. They saw death everywhere."
But Assi said simply allowing the children to come together, to play and to laugh as children would normally do, has helped these young refugees.
Some of them are rehearsing for an upcoming Christmas pageant, a venture between the centre and a Lebanese Christian school in a nearby town. A group of Syrian Santas practiced their dance routines on stage, their moves choreographed in time to an amped-up version of Jingle Bells.
Music is a great therapeutic tool, according to Assi.
In one of the classrooms, students sing songs about Syria. They clap and bang tambourines. And they smile.
There was a special song sung for Fatima Wednesday: happy birthday. She turned 12.
At the celebration inside the family's small shack that serves as their home, it was clear how the music and the drop-in centre have helped her. The girl who didn't want to make new friends was surrounded by boys and girls hugging her and giving her presents.