The world is watching in horror and sadness this week as children in Aleppo suffer unimaginable fear, trauma and danger. For other children who have escaped from Syria, their pain continues but some have been able to start a path to recovery, thanks to a Plan International-supported program offering remedial classes and psychosocial support.
On the outskirts of the Greater Cairo district of Giza is 6th of October City, a suburb that is hub, home and haven to thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the ongoing conflict.
Since June 2015 Plan International Egypt has worked with Ensan Foundation, a Syrian-run academy offering schooling and psychological support to 1,400 children as part of the Education in Harmony project supporting children to access the country’s education system.
Nearly all the Syrians in 6th of October have left behind loved ones. Many families, where they could decide their destination, chose Egypt due to cultural similarities. But the dialects differ enough to present a challenge to children and adults and the quality of education standard is markedly lower than the Syrian schooling system.
For Syrian children dealing with trauma and adapting to a new environment Ensan Academy has been invaluable in helping them integrate into a new country and a new life.
10 year-old Ahmed is a well-rounded, composed and articulate boy who attends Ensan Academy during the week. Up until three years ago he enjoyed a typical childhood in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus. He has many happy memories of life in the Syrian capital but particularly of his school, where he achieved top marks in all his subjects.
Ahmed fidgets as he remembers how he had to leave Syria “because there was destruction everywhere around us and heavy shooting at our apartment”. His building was evacuated and his father arrested, and in the blink of an eye his life was changed forever.
But with its remedial classes and “kind support”, Ensan Academy has helped Ahmed to make the best of Egyptian life. He still doesn’t feel safe and he worries for his relatives who have remained in Syria, but a spark shows in his eyes as he declares with optimism that “within four or five years the situation will be much better, and I’ll be able to return to my country”.
Ahmed’s mother, Abeer Ahmed, breaks down as she recalls how the family scrambled to hide in a bunker when their apartment came under fire in August 2012. After armed soldiers attacked the shelter, killing three relatives, the surviving family were so terrified of danger that they stayed hidden for six days.
Four years later, Ahmed has been left deeply distressed. For a while he slept under his bed to shield himself from the planes that might fly overhead and the bombs they might drop.
But his mother describes Ahmed’s remedial classes as “excellent” and says Ensan has helped him to turn his life around. “There is care and kindness between the children and the teachers; we are trying to treat him to get better. Ahmed has started to communicate and go out with his friend, and his awareness has increased. This makes me very happy.”
“He’s becoming an ordinary child.”
Freeza Khoundi and her son, Abdel-Latif, left Damascus after seeing her parents’ house shelled and her cousins and brother killed. Unsurprisingly, witnessing the incident has had an impact on Abdel-Latif’s psychological state, causing him to become isolated and introverted.
“My son is easily spooked by loud noises and sudden movements”, Freeza tearfully explains. “He refuses to sit away from me no matter where we go, and refuses to leave the house on his own. Any attempt to force him to do something he does not want to do is met with a very violent reaction, along with threats to throw himself off the balcony.”
Freeza believes Ensan’s remedial classes and psychosocial support are helping her son to deal with his ordeal, and gradually she is noticing a shift in his mindset. “When it is time for the remedial classes, Abdel-Latif is noticeably joyful. He enjoys being there.”
This crucial psychosocial treatment is provided to Ensan pupils by consultant psychotherapist, Yousry. He uses group therapy and individual sessions to help children come to terms with what they have endured in the past and their new reality of now.
“Children have been badly affected by the violence they witnessed in Syria and by the separation of their families,” Yousry explains. “Most are lacking a sense of safety.” He devises recreational activities to encourage them to interact and play with each other, which in turn helps them to express themselves.
Involving those children in integration exercises with their Egyptian peers gives them a sense of belonging in their strange new surroundings. “Many Syrians can’t adapt because they are living in closed communities and not mingling enough with others,” he says. “They are often introverted, which shows they have endured a horrible experience, and they can feel unaccepted by Egyptians who perceive them to be occupying their land.”
Despite obvious cultural similarities Syrian children are often subject to bullying in Egyptian state schools. Girls face particular peril. “Most girls have to be protected from violence by their families, who don’t allow them to go out without a male guardian.”
Teachers’ skills are also being improved to deliver gender- and conflict-sensitive schooling. With a combined 37 years in teaching under their belts, Enas Ramadan and Amel agree that the first signs of integration came when Syrian and Egyptian children started to borrow stationary from each other.
Now, says science teacher Enas, they even communicate with each other outside school. “If I ask about a Syrian girl who is absent that day”, she says, “an Egyptian girl will answer with the latest news about why she hasn’t showed up. They are friends.”
Children find the challenges presented by dialect and the difference in curricula limiting enough, maths teacher Amel adds, but the shock of war also becomes apparent when they struggle to concentrate in class or to follow her explanations. Sometimes the children develop learning difficulties.
“I want the children to remember Egypt as their home and feel the nations have integrated together”, she says. “And I have a positive feeling that I have contributed to society.”
As part of the Education in Harmony project, school facilities at Ensan are being improved to meet the needs of children, including minor repairs, improvements to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and provision of supplies.
“Our relationship with Plan International has helped us to acquire experience”, project coordinator Shaheer says. “If we have an enquiry we go to them, and their staff are often present at our activities.”
“When the project started, distress were already very evident in the children. A child hearing a plane passing overhead might hide under the table, but these examples have decreased.
“The partnership gives us the opportunity to provide more services for Syrian refugees by involving experts who weren’t available before. It’s about providing qualitative services.”
Ensan Foundation field officer Mohamed Rakhan Mahabany arrived in Egypt in 2013. He has vivid memories of the bombings, the ensuing destruction, and of mothers crying for their lost children. “The psychological side is very important as a lot of Syrian children witnessed the conflict: the blood, the death of a father, brother, relative or friend”, he says.
Rakhan has lost cousins and friends to the war, and knows only too well the long-term psychological effects of bloodshed. “70 per cent of Syrian children here are suffering from psychological distress”, he says, somberly. “War-affected children are often isolated and alone. They feel as if they are strangers. There are too many memories of blood, death and fear.”
Rakhan wants to return to Syria one day “to rebuild it and make it better”, but for now he is motivated by giving Syrian children the qualified education they will need when peace does eventually come. “I feel it is my duty to help children who are living outside of Syria, for the sake of Syria”, he says. “I am hoping for them to be with their mothers and families again.”
Trauma from war is long-lasting. Children and families fleeing Syria have endured what no human ever should. But for these children forging a new life, schooling and psychosocial support can provide the sense of friendship, community and belonging to help them feel safe and be kids again.