Tue, Jan 03, 2017 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Syrian child refugees taught to release stress

Thomson Reuters Foundation, BEIRUT

The screams of a dozen Syrian and Palestinian children pierce the air of a community center in Lebanon’s Shatila refugee camp.

Yet, the children are not hurt. They are yelling to express the anger and fear they feel as victims of conflict in special “peace education” classes.

“We don’t hit each other. We don’t say bad things about each other. Boys don’t hit girls,” said 11-year-old Hala, who asked not to be identified for security reasons.

Hala fled Deir el-Zor in Syria and has been living in Lebanon for less than two years. She said one of her favorite activities is “playback,” where each child will tell a story or describe a situation that is bothering them and will have the other children act it out.

Organized by Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a local charity, the classes in a chaotic fifth floor room were set up to help children voice their opinions, release the stress caused by war and displacement and rediscover their imaginations, staff said.

They hope by providing children with activities such as painting, drama and storytelling, they will be less vulnerable to recruitment by militant groups preying on children and teenagers who might be out of school with little to occupy them.

“These kids have been through a lot. They’re traumatized in many different ways,” said “peace education” project manager Elio Gharios.

“They’re agitated, maybe introverted, aggressive at times,” he said.

Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees, half of them children.

In 1949, it opened the Shatila camp in Beirut to host Palestinian refugees fleeing Israel’s founding in 1948.

As a new wave of Syrian refugees joined the ranks of the displaced, Shatila has grown upwards, with some buildings now six floors high.

Houses are damp and overcrowded and the tangled electricity wires that hang across the streets cause multiple deaths each year.

More of an urban slum than a traditional refugee camp, Shatila which covers 1km2 is home to as many as 42,000 people, according to Rasha Shukr, the Beirut area manager for Basma and Zeitooneh.

Gharios, a 24-year-old Lebanese psychology graduate, said children aged between seven and 14 attend the classes with up to 20 children in each session.

Each class starts with the children deciding on rules for how they can and cannot treat each other.

“They need to know that finding peaceful ways to resolve conflicts is a very important matter ... They are reminded every time that violence is not the solution, it’s not the way,” Gharios said.

“They’re young, it is the teenagers who are easiest to brainwash. Many children know how to roll a joint, say, and they’re 11 or 12. Many in here have witnessed things happen where someone would hold a gun against someone else’s head,” Gharios said.

Young Syrian refugees are at particular risk of being recruited by extremist groups in Lebanon and elsewhere because their recent displacement often fuels a sense of hopelessness, said UK-based charity International Alert, which funds projects in Shatila camp, including the classes.

Palestinian groups including Hamas militants and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement are active inside Shatila, according to charities working there.

The Islamic State group and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, have also been known to target young refugees online, they said.

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