CBC in Lebanon

Syrian children in refugee camps struggle with mental scars of war

Refugee groups are trying to help Syrian children struggling to deal with horrible memories of violence and death.

'I saw so many bad things in Syria': Many children in refugee camps struggle with violent memories

Derek Stoffel describes the lengths NGOs go to in order to help educate and entertain refugee children in Lebanon 1:29

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.

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.

Fatima al-Lawoz's friend was shot in 2012 while they were walking in Homs, a Syrian city devastated by the country's civil war. The traumatic loss has made it hard for her to form new friendships. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
Syria's brutal war has left a generation of children shattered by the horrors of war. It has interrupted the education of hundreds of thousands of Syrian students. And made too many orphans.

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.

Derek Stoffel visits a UN processing office where refugees go for assistance and start the process for resettlement to places like Canada 1:24

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."

Syrian children in a classroom at a drop-in centre for Syrian refugees in the town of Saad Nayel, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
Counselors at the centre offer support in groups, or one-on-one.

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.

Syrian children colour and draw pictures in a classroom at the Saad Nayel drop-in centre. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)
"The music makes me feel so happy!" said Fatima. "When I sing, I feel I am singing for all of the children of Syria."

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.

Fatima said she made a birthday wish: that the war in Syria will end soon, so she can go home and take all of Syria's children with her.
Syrian children rehearse for an upcoming Christmas pageant at a drop-in centre for young refugees in Saad Nayel, Lebanon. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.

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