‘He sits in the corner by himself’: Syrian children haunted by past years after reaching safety

AMMAN: Lia sits in the home she shares with her aunt and grandmother in Jordan. She is 12 years old. It has been three years since she lost everything and fled from Syria to Jordan with her younger siblings.

In July 2013, Lia’s mother was killed by a regime bombing of the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus where the family lived. Regime security forces arrested her father shortly afterwards. Lia, then nine years old, went with her eight-year-old sister Ghina and four-year-old brother Sami to live with their ill, elderly grandfather.

The children had only lived with their grandfather for a short while before the August 2013 sarin gas attack on the rebel-held Ghouta suburbs that killed hundreds of people. Lia’s grandfather’s home was near one of the areas struck by the gas.

After the gas attack, Lia’s grandfather paid a driver to take her and her siblings to safety in Jordan, where their grandmother and aunt lived. When they got to the border, the children were not allowed through.

For a time, Lia and her siblings stayed with the driver and his wife in Daraa province. When the driver couldn’t support them anymore, the children spent a month shuttled between the homes of strangers before they were finally able to cross into Jordan and join their grandmother and aunt in September 2013.

For Lia, it was a long road to safety. Today, she attends school, but the past haunts her. The memories are sharp, she says, and as the war rages next door, the news coming from Syria serves as a constant reminder of what she has lost, and what she left behind.

“The war tore my childhood away from me,” Lia told Syria Direct. “I wish I died with my mother…I’m all alone. My siblings and I are living in pain every day.”

 A child in the Waer district of Homs. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.

Lia and her siblings are among the more than 15,000 unaccompanied and separated children who have left Syria since 2011, according to a March 2016 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

For children fleeing a war zone anywhere, physically leaving does not mean leaving the war behind. Recurring flashbacks, guilt, depression, night terrors and speech difficulties are only some of the ways that past trauma echoes into their current lives.

“We are really trying to help them,” Lia’s grandmother told Syria Direct in Amman. “What they went through in Syria has left them with physical and psychological issues.”

Referring to Lia’s brother, Sami, their grandmother said “he hits other children.” At night, “he wakes up and cries for hours and hours,” she said. More than three years after leaving Syria, “they sometimes wet themselves when they hear explosions, or something scares them.”

A recent Mercy Corps assessment of the psychological impact of the Syrian war on children found that, in addition to fear and loneliness, older children are most likely to experience “frustration, anger and shame.” Younger children, on the other hand, may have nightmares, wet their beds or “regress in their normal development.”

Lia, Ghina and Sami have received psychological treatment for the past three years. But after losing both parents and experiencing bombing and homelessness, they are still struggling.

“Treating cases like these takes a long time,” Lia’s psychologist told Syria Direct, asking not to be named. “You do not see radical improvements because it takes time.”

The war in Syria has only become more violent and insidious in the years since the children left for Jordan. Daily bombings of hospitals, schools and residential areas have, somehow, become the norm. For Lia, news of the persistent violence is a constant reminder of the past.

“The other day, I saw how they bombed a school in Ghouta,” said Lia. “A girl my age died. Whenever I see schools bombed and children dying, I remember the time that my school was hit. We were all hiding under the desks, crying and screaming.”

"After, when things calmed down, there was nobody to come and get us.”

‘I hope he will forget’

Seven-year-old Muhammad, originally from Homs city, now lives with his mother and younger sister in Jordan. Four years ago, he was taken to a Syrian government detention facility alongside his father.

Muhammad, his infant sister, mother and father decided to leave the siege of Homs for Jordan in 2012. During the journey south from Homs, Muhammad’s father was arrested at a regime checkpoint. The three-year-old was detained with his father, while his mother and sister escaped the checkpoint.

 Photo courtesy of Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The three-year-old boy was taken to a Syrian government detention center, separated from his father, and kept in a cell with female detainees, where he stayed for one month.

Muhammad is not the only child to experience detention by government forces in Syria. This past June, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 10,891 children under the age of 18 have been detained in government detention centers.

In the report, SNHR documented the arrest of a four-year-old girl alongside her mother by regime forces in Aleppo city this past January. Both are still missing. The organization also documented dozens of children under arrest by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham and other armed opposition groups.

SNHR noted the “deep and complicated psychological toll” of detention on children, “the manifestation of which is hard to predict in the near or far future.”

One of the women in the cell where Muhammad was kept in 2012 happened to know his mother. She recognized Muhammad, cared for him, and after her release, took him across the border to his mother in Jordan.

But after one month in detention, Muhammad had changed completely, his mother told Syria Direct in a recent interview.

“My son got out of detention completely mute,” Umm Muhammad told Syria Direct. “He wouldn’t approach me. It was like he was seeing another human for the first time. I broke down crying whenever I looked at him, wondering what he went through.”

Before the family was separated on the road to Jordan four years ago, Muhammad was a regular three-year-old child, according to his mother.

After Muhammad arrived in Jordan, it took two years of treatment before, when he was five years old, “he started to say some words,” said Umm Muhammad. He also began interacting with his peers around the same time.

Today, at age seven, Umm Muhammad says her son “sits in the corners of rooms by himself all the time,” she said. “He doesn’t know his name, or mine.”

Trauma is complex, and treatment is unpredictable, Muhammad a-Sayyed, the director of a psychological support center for Syrian children in Turkey told Syria Direct in a phone interview.

“The length of treatment differs depending on the doctor, the patient and the problem,” said a-Sayyed. However, “the younger a child is, in general, the more flexible they are.”

Muhammad’s mother says she wonders whether her husband is still alive. There has been no word.

“What happened to my son is a lost secret,” said Umm Muhammad.

“I hope he will forget it.”

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Lujain al-Zaiem

Originally from Damascus, Lujain was forced to discontinue her studies because of the conflict. She worked as a radio presenter with Melody Radio in Damascus before moving to Jordan in 2012. Her love of journalism was the motive to join the Syria Direct training program. She wants to use her skills to serve the Syrian cause.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.