Saarbruecken, Germany – Like most who have fled conflict, Ali’s path to asylum in Germany from Afghanistan has not been easy.
The 17-year-old orphan slept in public toilets for two years and has been working for a living since the age of five.
The trauma of war and the long journey to asylum still haunts the teenager. Evidence of his childhood ordeal is on display in the form of paintings on the walls of his room.
“My life has been marked by very negative events until now,” Ali told Al Jazeera. “Nobody helped me in Iran or the other countries I was in.
“These events haunt me, so I am trying to express this in my paintings.”
To help unaccompanied minors like Ali adjust to life in Germany, an institute in the city of Saarbruecken is providing an intensive short-term practical therapy called START.
The emotion management scheme is tailored to the needs of young refugees, letting them realise and express their feelings openly.
The professor who designed it says it is simple and effective.
“It helps rapidly and this is what they need to experience, because these patients are sometimes very distrustful of psychiatry,” psychotherapist Eva Moehler said.
“So if they experience fast help and think after one session, ‘Wow I can do this and this really helps and I can stop cutting myself or can stop pulling my hair out’, it really helps.”
Just five weeks ago, Ali would repress emotions and thoughts related to his traumatic past, but now he expresses them on paper.
Hundreds of thousands of child refugees were admitted into Germany last year as part of the government’s humanitarian open-door policy.
Although many suffer from trauma, most do not receive the sort of care on offer in Saarbruecken.
Psychotherapist Andrea Dixius believes the environment at the institute is integral to the therapy’s success.
“These children need surroundings that will help validate them,” Dixius said. “They shouldn’t all be looked at as potential perpetrators of violent acts.
“The important thing is to integrate them and help them to do so.”