Syria civil war: Helping traumatised children in Aleppo

A psychological support centre in Aleppo runs after-school programmes to help children cope with the ongoing war.

Specialists regularly attend Daruna to help students with their communication skills, hurt by years of war [Zaid Muhammad/Al Jazeera]
Specialists regularly attend Daruna to help students with their communication skills, hurt by years of war [Zaid Muhammad/Al Jazeera]

Aleppo, Syria – As the Syrian government continues its military offensive against rebel-held areas in Aleppo and the civilian death toll mounts, thousands of the city’s children have been left traumatised by the harrowing conflict surrounding them.

But one after-school initiative in Aleppo is aiming to help these children to cope.

“We want to help children overcome the psychological and social pressures [of the war], whether on the street or at home,” said Afra Hashem, director of the psychological support department at the Daruna Social Centre, an after-school programme that aims to provide children with recreational activities.

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Although Aleppo was left out of a US-Russian brokered truce announced in February, it has enjoyed relative calm. However, the past week has witnessed an escalation in violence, as regime forces have pounded the city with air strikes, including some that have hit medical facilities.

Since April 22, at least 246 civilians, including 43 children, have died in shelling, rocket fire and air strikes, both in the regime-controlled western parts of the city and the opposition-ruled eastern parts, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Daruna – which means “our home” in Arabic – aims to provide Aleppo’s children with a variety of activities such as theatre, arts and crafts to help them deal with the stress and trauma of the war.

The activities Daruna provides help the children to maintain some semblances of a normal life [Zaid Muhammad/Al Jazeera]

Last month, children at the centre exhibited their latest artwork and performed a play for parents and Daruna staff. The children sang songs, danced and ate cake. It could have been a party in any classroom around the world, allowing the children to briefly forget their traumatic surroundings.

“We hand out drawing pads and crayons so they can discover ideas that perhaps they can’t express out of fear,” Hashem told Al Jazeera.

The centre also screens movies to “stimulate innovation among children who have to suppress their feelings due to the war”, she said, noting that “we give the time, space and tools with which they need to play”.

We hand out drawing pads and crayons so they can discover their ideas that perhaps they can't express out of fear.

Afra Hashem, director of the psychological support department at the Daruna Social Centre

The centre’s days are not all fun and games, though. Psychology specialists regularly come to Daruna to help the students with their communication skills, hurt by years of war.

Although an estimated 300,000 children remain in Aleppo, some have opted to stop going to school due to the risk of injury or death.

Samia al-Ibrahim, who stayed in Aleppo because she wanted her children to complete their education in their home country, says the centre has been a significant benefit to her son, Yassine.

“My son can’t move his hand well. He works on this by drawing and acting in the theatre,” Ibrahim told Al Jazeera.

Yassine was injured when a weapon fragment ricocheted and hit his hand while he was playing outside, she said. “He suffers from emptiness and a lack of fun activities in his life,” Ibrahim said.

READ MORE: Growing up in Aleppo: ‘We are scared of the bombs’

Taking inspiration from his roles in Daruna’s theatrical productions, Yassine now says that he wants to be an actor when he grows up.

“It’s a lot of fun. I wait all day for school to end so I can go play at the centre,” he told Al Jazeera.

Hashem is aware that the ongoing war may hinder some of the progress the children have made. The centre – which, like other buildings in Aleppo, fortifies its walls and doors with sandbags to protect its 300 students and staff from potential air strikes – has closed in the past during periods of heavy bombardment. 

Whatever becomes of Daruna as full-scale war again descends upon Aleppo yet again, Hashem believes her work is an integral part of ensuring the Syrian revolution’s success. 

“We want to raise a generation that will serve the country and the revolution, now and in the future.” 

Source: Al Jazeera


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