ANTAKYA, Turkey — Go to any school set aside for Syrian refugee children, and the classroom walls are decorated with colorful drawings that, on closer inspection, depict scenes of carnage.
Airplanes drop bombs. Soldiers fire guns at civilians. Houses are consumed by flames. Tanks roll down streets lined with flowers.
The color of blood and aggression is as plain as crayon on paper.
“The children’s thoughts are in red,” said Mustafa Shakr, a former principal in Damascus who now runs a school for more than 300 Syrian children in the Turkish city of Antakya near the Syrian border. “Even many of their drawings are done entirely in red.”
The uprising in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, now in its 21st month, is having a profound and often disturbing effect on children. Hundreds of thousands have been uprooted to flee with their families, frequently after witnessing death and the destruction of familiar buildings and neighborhoods that used to signify safety and continuity. Many children who have stayed in Syria face bombardment, food shortages and bitter cold without fuel or school.
In their makeshift homes, dark thoughts haunt these young victims.
“My younger sister had a dream the other night,” said 10-year-old Mahar, in a refugee camp near the Turkish town of Yayladagi. “She dreamed she went to Syria, killed Bashar and came back.”
Parents and humanitarian organizations are struggling to help. Many refugee schools have play rooms and art programs that encourage children to express their fears and start to regain a sense of normality.
But there is a shortage of professionals trained in psychology. The schools, staffed by Syrian teachers and administrators who themselves fled the violence, often make do with volunteers.
“I’m a gynecologist,” said a woman who would provide only her first name, Manar, who is helping children who exhibit traumatized behavior at a seven-room school fashioned from a small convention center in the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Pointing to her team partner, she added, “She’s a civil engineer.”
“We’re not specialists,” she said. “We’re just here to help the kids learn to become better. We encourage them by saying, ‘Be a good example for your friends,’ and talk to them about the problems they brought with them from Syria.”
An 8-year-old boy from Aleppo refused to talk for 15 days after arriving. When he finally spoke, his first words were, “They burned my school.”
A first-grade girl who saw her uncle run over by a tank, severing his leg, is frequently absent from class and often goes home with a high temperature.
A boy playing soldier shouted out, “I’m with the FSA,” the acronym for Syrian rebel forces. As a teacher approached, the boy hid under his desk and cried out fearfully, “Don’t tell the army.”
Many of the 290 children at the primary school stage impromptu, daily protests against Assad, shouting revolutionary slogans in the courtyard.
“My son is the leader of the demonstrations,” said Um Mohammed, or mother of Mohammed, her face showing conflicting emotions of pride and chagrin with her 9-year-old boy. “I don’t want my son to hate his country. But he hates his country and the state, and he doesn’t want to go back.”
Dealing with the effects
Though some children are clearly exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, school officials and psychologists say they are a small minority. The experience of children in Nicaragua, Cambodia, the West Bank and Gaza suggests that most eventually return to their normal routines with no long-lasting repercussions, psychiatrists say.
“Research shows that memories are short-lived,” said Nadim Almoshmosh, president of the British Arab Psychiatrists Association who is coordinating efforts to provide mental health support to Syrian refugees. “Mostly, they come out of it. Of course, the longer it goes on, the more impact it will have. But eventually, most find a way of coping and move on.”
The traditional nature of Syrian society has both advantages and shortcomings in dealing with the psychological effects of war, Almoshmosh said.
It is not common for Syrians of any age to seek professional help from therapists because of the stigma attached to psychological problems.
“In Syria, children are not encouraged to express what they’re feeling,” Almoshmosh said.
“But in the last 20 months, people have pulled together somehow in the face of a unified enemy,” he added. “Children who are going to school are part of a community, and that gives them support.”