Editor's note: As this issue goes to press in April 2020, we know that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, MCC’s work with displaced and other vulnerable people in Syria and around the world becomes even more critical. In a time of global crisis, those who are most vulnerable often suffer the most. Read more about MCC’s responses in this time.
Nine years of war in Syria have given 14-year-old Kareem Haddad* a lot of reasons to want to study medicine, especially neurology.
When Kareem was in Grade 2, his father, who was a pharmacist, was killed by shrapnel on the streets of Jaramana.
A couple of years later, a mortar fell so close to Kareem’s school that parents were called to get their children. On the way home, another mortar shell exploded, killing many people and injuring the spine of a woman he knew.
And then there was his friend’s father who was paralyzed after shrapnel pierced his spinal column as he was getting out of his car to shop. As Kareem explored medical sites on the internet to find out more about the man’s condition, he became intrigued by what he learned.
“My dream now is to become a neurologist, to treat people with nerve and brain diseases,” he says. “I want to continue reading medical books even after finishing my studies and try my best to increase my knowledge, for no matter how much I study, there will always be new information.”
Kareem may indeed be able to pursue this goal — bringing good out of the trauma he experienced — because of the support and encouragement he receives at Al Asieh, a private school supported by MCC’s partner Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is able to attend because MCC funding allows the school to give his mother a tuition break.
At the school, Kareem learns from teachers who have had MCC-supported training on how to work with traumatized children. They understand the need to build a connection with students, both Muslim and Christian, through kindness and empathy as negative behaviours surface from their pain.
With this kind of support at school and at home, Kareem seems able to look toward the future with hope. But many other children live out their trauma in fear, anxiety, anger and violence.
“This is a wartime generation, a crisis generation,” says Laila Dawood Rajha, principal of Al Ahlieh, another private school in Jaramana supported through MCC and MECC. “Students prior to the war were more ethical and their behaviour was better. Now there is violence; their language is anger.”
Parents and educators must work together, she says, to help children at home and at school to move beyond the fear, anxiety and anger, and to experience gentler feelings again.
MCC understands the need to bring hope and healing to children and their families.
MCC has supported children’s education and trauma training at multiple schools in Syria and has funded programs that nurture children’s social and emotional well-being.
This is a wartime generation, a crisis generation ... ”
- Laila Dawood Rajha
For years, MCC’s partners also distributed food baskets to the most vulnerable people in many communities, often families with one parent or many children. Food, comforters and hygiene supplies helped parents figure out how to take care of their children amid scarcity, inflated prices and dwindling jobs.
MCC’s partners continue to provide food to those in need, and they are turning attention toward helping people have the skills and the resources they need to earn a living.
Through MCC’s partnership with MECC, women who became sole wage earners and young people whose education was interrupted because of the war received training in cellphone repair, cooking and hairdressing.
During the war, Rana Hasan’s husband was paralyzed while serving in the military. She had surgery for breast cancer and treatment for other health issues, and they needed to sell their house. Meanwhile, the anxiety their three children experienced worsened.
Hasan decided she couldn’t let her illness or her husband’s situation hold her back.
She joined MECC’s free hairstyling class in her city, Tartus, and learned how to cut, dye and style hair from instructors who entertained her many questions.
She now takes clients in her home, where she also can tend to her children’s and husband's needs.
Work has been steady, she says, which has lightened her emotional and financial burdens and lifted the spirits of her children and husband.
“There was a big difference, in all aspects, even at a psychological level,” Hasan says. “When you meet new people, they motivate you to do anything in your life, not only in work. You become stronger in life.”
Having a daily income, she says, helps her feel more secure. “You don’t have to be dependent on anyone or wait for anyone’s help,” she says.
In other areas of Syria, MCC’s partners are replacing farm equipment and livestock destroyed during the war. Women are learning how to start their own businesses to sell popular home-canned mouneh, which is any preserved local food, including sour grapes, olives, fruit, grains, vegetables or even cheese.
When you meet new people, they motivate you to do anything in your life, not only in work. You become stronger in life.”
- Rana Hasan
Economic security is important for families as they move into the future, but emotional security is a valuable partner in recovery.
“The atmosphere of war and fear, the horror we experienced, was very difficult,” says Amena, the mother of nine-year-old Haneen (last names not used for security reasons). Her daughter was terrified by the sounds of exploding mortar shells and rockets when she was a small child.
Even though the family fled to the safer town of Al Humaira when Haneen was three, fighting was still happening in nearby areas, and conversations and news reports were a constant reminder.
She was a fearful child for the next several years.
When Haneen was six, her mother enrolled her and her two sisters in Child Friendly Spaces (CFS), an effort that MCC supports through partner Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD).
Offered once or twice a week for four to six hours, CFS gives children the opportunity to build trust as they play together and participate in classes that encourage them to express their emotions through drama, art and music.
The co-ordinators and many of the volunteers have received training in how to help children recover from trauma, also supported by MCC through partner Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches.
Children who have been displaced or who have suffered significant loss are the primary participants. In Al Humaira, 240 children attend. The project reaches more than 1,200 children throughout Syria.
My first wish is that conditions and social situations will get better in Syria — that there will be no more war or problems, to be good people, united, to help each other.”
- Kareem Haddad
Amena says CFS has helped to relieve Haneen’s fears by getting her away from the atmosphere of war and fear. “It keeps her entertained. She plays here, meets her friends, and it makes her active.”
The children also have learned about more peaceful ways to live than what they have seen and experienced in the last nine years.
Amena remembers Haneen saying: “Mom, we learned that we mustn’t fight with each other; we have to love each other more. We must not insult each other but love each other instead.”
Learning about a new way to live now and in the future is important for children who are recovering, says George Sarkis, who took part in MCC training sessions and works with children in Damascus. (Read more about George Sarkis) As co-ordinators introduce children to new possibilities, children begin to hope that they may have a good future. “A new yearning shines in the children’s eyes.”
Kareem’s hopes to become a neurologist help him to move toward the future, but a career is not all he sees.
“My first wish is that conditions and social situations will get better in Syria — that there will be no more war or problems, to be good people, united, to help each other.”
Rajha, as she works with children in her school, holds out hope that Syrians will gradually leave the fear and violence behind.
“Our country is a good one, and its people are kindhearted,” she says. “There are still many good people. We have to use this leaven to make our country wonderful again.”
Linda Espenshade is the news co-ordinator for MCC U.S. Petra Antoun, Jafar Al-Merei and Ibrahem Melhem are based in Syria.
*Kareem’s name was changed for his security.