In one Aleppo town, parents flock to psychological center as some children ‘violent, stressed’

AMMAN: In a northwestern corner of Aleppo province, a new psychological support center is directly helping more than 900 local children cope with the stresses of war and ongoing bombardments, including tantrums, night terrors, and severe anxiety.

The West Aleppo Project to Support Children’s Mental Health Center opened its doors in the town of Darat Izza last November with a grant from IHSAN Relief and Development, a non-governmental organization based 100km northeast in Gaziantep, Turkey which funds local Syrian initiatives to improve the daily life of Syrians, and logistical support from the Local Coordination Council.

“Initially it was difficult to get the mothers to agree to send their children to the center,” Khuduj al-Hilo, the center’s director told Syria Direct. She and her colleagues faced resistance from parents, as people who seek psychological treatment, even during a time of war, are commonly perceived as broken or mentally ill. 

The center’s staff chose to tackle that taboo head-on, bringing their teams into local schools to hold sports and recreational activities.

As the children play, professionals evaluate what they can see of students’ psychological conditions while they participate in group games and activities, said al-Hilo. “Psychologists and guidance counselors attend to assess the students’ behavior in a school setting to identify those who need additional psychological support and transfer them to the center.”

Play therapy in session. Photo courtesy of Nadia Rashid.

At the same time, the staff simultaneously educates teachers on “dealing with children during wars and crises, along with special-needs children in emergency situations,” Tariq Aqad, a child psychologist at the center, told Syria Direct.

“The project’s impetus is that children need a place suitable for playing, recreation and repairing what has been damaged by the burdens of war,” said al-Hilo.

Located 25km south of Afrin and 28km northwest of Aleppo city, Darat Izza and the surrounding countryside are controlled by several different Islamist factions including Jabhat a-Nusra, which took over the town in mid-June 2012.

Russian and regime warplanes have heavily targeted northwest Aleppo since Moscow began its air campaign in early October.

This “daily bombardment” makes children constantly fearful and anxious, said Aqad, adding that this can lead to night terrors and bedwetting.

The air raids have driven 350 families to flee the countryside to Darat Izza, where the population has swelled in recent months from a prewar population of 13,500 residents to approximately 36,000.

In early October, Russian warplanes reportedly launched an airstrike on Darat Izza that killed five civilians including a child, prompting residents to demonstrate against Russia’s “occupation” of Syria.

Since the center opened the following month, parents have already registered 900 of the town’s 2,950 children for recreational activities and therapy sessions.

Family-related issues such as financial problems caused by a weak wartime economy or the death of a parent can also lead to psychological and behavioral challenges, said Aqad. “All of these factors negatively affect the children’s behavior, making them violent, stressed and short-tempered.”

Parents and the center’s employees say they are already seeing results.

“This center has really encouraged my daughter and strengthened her confidence in herself,” one mother told Syria Direct, adding that this is especially important “since our children are deprived from such activities at school due to the circumstances of the war and little free time.”

“We have gotten surprising results in the first month of training from this program,” Nadia Rashid, a psychologist with the center, told Syria Direct. “A lot of the mothers have thanked us for what we are giving their children because it has helped to form their personalities and improved their cognitive abilities.”

One mother whose daughter was having tantrums before said her daughter’s behavior has “improved” and that she “is herself again.”

On a recent Sunday, psychologists and therapists at the center held the first session for a group of 116 students from Darat Izza’s schools who they had identified over the last month as needing additional support, said the center’s director al-Hilo.

After breaking the students up into groups of 14 according to their specific needs, the psych team led recreational and educational activities with specific goals for each different group, Rashid said.

The students appear pleased to have structure and fun in their days, director al-Hilo said, adding that for two months, 112 of these students will meet daily with the center’s staff for therapy.

“Most of the selected students have been greatly affected by the circumstances of the war and are happy to have something new in their lives,” he said.

Though the center provides support for children and adolescents between the ages of six and 18, staff psychologists have determined that the war has a greater effect on younger children between six and 10 years old.

Recently, the program’s outreach team has expanded its awareness campaign to other areas of rebel-controlled Aleppo by holding seminars at universities and with other local opposition councils to spread their psychological-support model.

“In my opinion, our success is putting a smile on our children’s faces and developing their abilities and cultivating their talents so that they become a generation strong of both mind and body,” said al-Hilo.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Samuel Kieke

Samuel Kieke was a 2014-2015 CASA I fellow in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in Arabic Language and Literature, Middle Eastern Studies, and International Relations and Global Studies.