Iguacu Blog

“In my dreams, I go back to my home village and see ghosts of my friends” | The impact of war trauma on Syrian and Iraqi children

Sep 15, 2017
“In my dreams, I go back to my home village and see ghosts of my friends” | The impact of war trauma on Syrian and Iraqi children
Nathanael Chouraqui
Lead Researcher, Iraq & Syria

Nathanael holds an MSc. in International Relations from the LSE, a Bachelor of Laws from the Sorbonne University and a B.A. in Government from Sciences Po Aix. He previously worked for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Research Consultant at Harvard University. Nathanael was awarded the LSE Research Festival Highly Commended Prize for his research on post-terrorist attack resilience. He speaks French and English.

Syrian and Iraqi children have been caught up in a war-zone when they should have been going to school. In this two part series, Nathanael Chouraqui, Lead Researcher at iguacu, explores some of their stories, and the existing initiatives that address their traumas to help get them back to school.

A WAR ON CHILDHOOD

In 2016, every six hours a child died or was severely injured in Syria.

The ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq are also wars on childhood. In both countries, under 18s bear a disproportionate brunt of the conflict. There are currently more than 6 million children across the two countries who are not in regular schooling (also known as out-of-school children), they are the most vulnerable to the wars’ effects. This is not only because they miss out on education.

While documenting the precise impact of the current conflicts on children is a near impossible task, reports show, out-of-school children are significantly more at risk of being recruited and trained to fight. A similar trend has been identified for child labor, especially for boys, in both Syria and Iraq. Early marriage is more common among girls who can’t go to school. Sometimes this is a last resort for the families of the girls trying to cope with war-induced abject poverty. The use of girls as sexual slaves to fighters in extremist groups has also become widespread in both countries.

A family of 9 children from Quneitra in Syria sit in an NRC rehabilitated shelter in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. | Photo Credit: NRC/Sam Tarling

Among out-of school children, thousands are separated from their families and many remain unaccompanied. Many are orphans. For them “the situation is even harsher than for other children”, UNICEF regional director said.

Countless children have now recounted their experience. Whilst what they say may fail to adequately capture what they have been through, it still paints a stark picture. Ahmed is one of the many children displaced from Aleppo who now lives in a camp. He told the BBC he was once woken by a rat nibbling on his face. Baraa, an 8 year-old girl who was trapped in the city of Homs, suffered through the trauma of siege and starvation. She recalls one of her darkest moments: 


“We had a cat … they slaughtered her and sent us some of it. We ate it.” — Baraa

Tens of thousands of Syrians had crossed the border into Lebanon in search of safety, half of them were children. | Photo Credits: D.Khamissy / UNHCR

Fifteen year-old Omar saw his town, Madaya, besieged for two years. He lived among malnourished children who had difficulties to walk. He was reached via Skype by journalists.

“We are being strangled here… it’s like I’m in prison.. I miss my Mum waking me up in the morning, coming back from school and being welcomed by her.”— Omar

This distressing experience led Omar to try to commit suicide by throwing himself from a balcony.

INVISIBLE WOUNDS

Omar is not an isolated case. Starvation, displacement and physical injuries often plunge children into a state of toxic stress. According to the charity Save the Children in Syria, the war has led to a nationwide increase in bedwetting, self-harm and suicide attempts. Even after reaching safety, children don’t forget the violence they’ve seen. 

“In my dreams I go back to my home village and see ghosts of my friends”-a Syrian girl interviewed by a BBC correspondent recounted.

The war, and the so-called Islamic State’s brutal education system, to which a a great many Iraqi and Syrian children have been exposed (which you can read more about here), have left a deep impact on children’s perception of themselves. According to another child:

“In the past, a twelve years old was considered young.. But not now. Now a twelve years old must go for jihad”.

Children who have stopped education struggle with the impact the war has had on their learning capacities.

NGOs provide catch-up education to thousands of Syria’s children, as many of them have missed more than a year of school due to the conflict. | Photo Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development


A Syrian boy told Unicef: “I was the top of my class. But because of the war, I don’t know what happened to me. I forgot how to read.”

Depression has become increasingly prevalent, particularly among adolescents. “Once an exuberant girl, now she sits and stares out the window and secretly thinks about ending her life” an International Rescue Committee (IRC) mental health worker reported about a teenager girl from Damascus.

Experts warned that the psychological damage to an entire generation of children could become irreversible if nothing is done.

While battles are being fought with guns and bombs, there is also a war to save Iraq and Syria‘s children, and its first victory will lie in getting them back into the classroom.

Nathanael’s next blog will delve into the challenges of humanitarian response and review some of the initiatives that address the children’s traumas and help them get them back to school.

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