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In A Damascus Classroom, Reading, Writing And Trauma

Syrian refugee children play at a school in Damascus on August 23, 2012.
Syrian refugee children play at a school in Damascus on August 23, 2012.
Alia Ahmad

DAMASCUS — Nada, a teacher, starts her classes by asking her third-grade students to express their feelings. She is trained to deal with children who exhibit signs of trauma after living in a war zone for over two years. The school where Nada works is located in the relatively safe neighborhood of Sahnaya, in southern Damascus, but as in the rest of Syria, war is never out of mind.

On the first day of the school year, Nada distributes “face cards” to her class of mostly nine-year-olds, all showing different emotions. She asks them to pick the face that best describes their feelings. She chooses the smiling face, explaining that she is happy to meet them.

“I was shocked and terrified when over 15 students chose the sad face, while most of the rest picked the confused face. The happy children were the fewest in class,” she said.

It became apparent to her that the students who chose the sad face had lost a family member in the war, usually their fathers. Children picking the confused face had either seen a relative or friend die, or had fled their homes.

“It will be a tough school year due to the large number of orphans and children suffering from trauma,” Nada said. “This will definitely affect their academic progress, especially as they turn violent because of their condition. In addition, most live in financially dire situations and many come to school without having breakfast. And they are unable to buy the needed school supplies.”

The psychological trauma experienced by average civilians, including children, is often overlooked by international organizations struggling to provide them with enough basics, like food and water. Thousands of children who have lost family members or witnessed violence or displacement could be susceptible to shock and depression.

Samer, one of Nada’s students, said that his father had been “martyred” three months prior. “We are four siblings. I’m the eldest and my younger brother is still crawling. My mother started work at the clothes shop so she could provide for us. My father’s pension is not enough.”

Some of the children live in shelters, several families living in one room separated only by a curtain that fails to provide any kind of privacy. “Life is no longer bearable,” said Sirine, a seventh-grader at Nada’s school. “After my father was killed in the Yarmouk camp, we had to move into the shelter home. We share our room with a mother and her small kids. They cry a lot, and I can’t sleep or study. I asked mom to get us out of here, but she’s always crying. She can’t rent us our own place. If dad were alive, this wouldn’t have happened to us.”

Sirine’s mother makes food at a private shop at their group shelter. Her salary, along with the few provisions given by the government, is barely enough for them to make ends meet.

A 10-year-old student named Amer visited his father’s grave the year after he was killed. Amer’s mother had thought that one year was ample time for her son to adjust to the idea of death, after she had previously stopped him from going to see his father’s grave.

Amer’s father always pampered him, and the two were closely attached. After visiting the grave, Amer fell into a deep depression. “After we got back from the cemetery, he went straight to his room and didn’t talk to anyone,” his mother said. “He barely eats, and he refuses to go to school or play with his friends. The only thing he does now is draw graves. He wouldn’t stop drawing his father’s grave and writing how much he missed him. Then he started drawing graves on the walls in his room.”

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Syrian refugee children play at a school in Damascus — Photo: Qin Haishi - Xinhua/ZUMA

The students aren’t the only ones feeling the psychological effects of what they have seen. Syrian mothers and wives have lost their husbands or partners and are now the sole supporters for their families.

Shadia, an employee in the private sector, has breast cancer. Her husband was killed in the beginning of the crisis and she takes care of her three children alone.

Her eldest is in first grade, while the other two are still in kindergarten.

“I am alone, and I feel as if I’ve aged 10 years overnight," she said. “My life is getting more difficult. My children need me and I need someone to take care of me. My husband’s death was catastrophic. The little ones don’t understand what it means that their father is dead. They keep asking about him, especially my eldest. The two little ones don’t remember him until they see their friends’ fathers. I can’t help but cry and they cry with me, only adding to my pain. My family and in-laws help us, but no one can make up for the love and care he used to give us.”

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What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate

Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.

Image of a kid wearing a blue striped sweater, using an ipad.

Children exposed to technology at a very young age are prominent today.

Julián de Zubiría Samper


BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.

I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.

Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.

Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

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