children sitting on chairs in courtyard
MCC photo/Doreen Martens

In this activity Reem El Ali is leading for Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, children imagine they are holding a bird and telling the bird what they miss most about home.

In Lebanon and elsewhere, MCC-supported programs help children heal from trauma they’ve experienced, educate them about their rights and strive to protect them from future harm.

In a sunny, walled courtyard in Tyre, Lebanon, a boy of about 10 cups his hands in front of his face, imagining in them a little bird waiting to hear what he most misses about his home back in Syria.

“All my toys,” he whispers in Arabic. Then, with a shy smile, he flings his arms wide, releasing the imaginary bird into the sky with a wish that the bird will fly over his old home and say hello to his toys.

The next boy in the circle does the same, whispering to the bird that he misses his two older brothers, who have gone elsewhere to find work. The bird flies off to visit his brothers.

The game, which aims to help children regain positive feelings and a sense of connection with what they have lost, is a healing exercise for the 30 or so Syrian refugee children gathered here, all coping with the trauma of fleeing the life they once knew.

Through a program funded by MCC and run by local partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), about 200 children ages seven to 12 gather weekly in three locations in southern Lebanon.

Children (names not used for security reasons) participate in psychosocial activities run by MCC partner PARD in southern Lebanon.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Behind the carefully planned games and activities, interwoven with stories and laughter, are serious lessons. In Lebanon, as elsewhere around the world, MCC is striving to give partners such as PARD training and tools to help children who have experienced trauma, and to fund work that encourages healing but also protection from further harm.

While adults ultimately are responsible for children’s safety, programs such as this also teach young people about their rights and empower them to ask for help when needed.

PARD project manager Rashid El Mansi says the program, now in its second year, concentrates on children with the highest needs. PARD representatives went into southern Lebanese communities to put together a list of children facing particular struggles, such as two daughters whose father, out of exaggerated fears, refuses to let them out of the home except to go to the mosque.

The children and their families are from unofficial Palestinian refugee communities that have swelled with the Syrian influx. Some live crammed into tiny, sparsely furnished rented rooms. Others are in informal tented communities scattered around the rural areas where they have found landholders willing to rent them a patch of earth.

Two brothers (names not used for security reasons) on the bus home after a day participating in psychosocial activities run by MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) in southern Lebanon. MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Under the economic and social pressures presented by so many refugees flooding the region, prejudices and tensions are barriers to a peaceful co-existence. A sort of social pecking order among Lebanese, long-time Palestinian residents, Syrians and Syrian Palestinian newcomers makes the situation even more difficult.

Bringing children together from these groups is one way to build peace and understanding.

Program coordinator Fadia Dahshe says most of the children “didn’t know each other before. Now they’re starting to talk to each other.”

She recalls that they all refused to play with a boy who, as some hungry refugees are forced to do, earned a little money by collecting people’s household garbage, for about 88 cents per home. “Now,” she says, “they’re starting to accept him.”
For Dahshe, helping children extends to empowering their mothers, who carry a huge burden of trying to keep life and limb together, and often fail to take care of their own mental health needs.

She gathers moms to talk about their troubles and to help them take an active role in their communities —sometimes taking a group session to the home of a woman reluctant to go out on her own.

In a schoolyard north of Tyre, the girl in the centre (name not used for security reasons) plays the role of a mouse. The group protects her as a student playing a fierce cat tries to break into the circle. “If you have a group, you will be stronger,” says program coordinator Fadia Dahshe. “I can protect you and you can protect me. We must protect each other . . . . Don’t be afraid to go to someone to ask for help.”MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Many, she says, struggle with questions about how to discipline their children. Some grapple with depression, and many suffer from the trauma of war.

“We encourage them to forget their children for a minute and think about yourself, because they never think about self-care,” Dahshe says. Amid the endless rounds of work to care for their families, she encourages them to take at least 10 or 15 minutes a day to do something that relaxes them.

Meanwhile, Dahshe is always working to build the activities that will give children a healthier environment and more of a chance to flourish, whether that’s a quiet nature walk to listen for birds or something far more boisterous.

Back in the courtyard in Tyre, the children are all getting blindfolds and being told the name of an animal they will pretend to be in the next game. Then they have to circulate in a crowd, making animal noises to find the rest of their herd.

Soon they’re finding each other, laughing and hugging in big, happy groups of goats and elephants —focused not on pain or differences, but on being children together.

Doreen Martens is a freelance writer in Oakville, Ontario.

MCC, like many other organizations, is putting an increased emphasis on child protection, which includes preventing and responding to violence, exploitation and abuse. 

 

For years, some MCC-supported programs have included lessons on rights, protection and the importance of asking for help. Today, MCC also is asking that all partners who work with youth under 18 develop their own child protection policies and procedures, if they didn’t have ones in place. 

 

Read more in the Summer 2016 issue of Intersections: MCC Theory and Practice Quarterly, including an account of confronting sexual abuse in Kenya. 

Make a difference