The Effect of Syrian Civil War on Children’s Mental Health
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The Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011, has caused the biggest refugee flow since World War II. Millions of people are forced into fleeing to other countries, predominantly Turkey and Jordan, to seek a safe haven from ongoing war and armed conflict resulting in persecution, fatalities and hostile circumstances in their homeland. Approximately three million Syrians have moved to Turkey and are currently living across the country, predominantly in Istanbul; whilst many others have crossed to Greece with the hopeful destination of northern Europe, at a high cost to their own life. Unfortunately, via the media, we all have seen large numbers of people on boats that ended in tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea.
As established by research in similar contexts, severe traumatic events such as witnessing people persecuted and killed, inhuman treatment and losing their beloved ones have a negative impact on the mental health of Syrian refugee children. Therefore, the aim of my study is investigating the effect of parental factors, i.e. parents’ mental health, child rearing styles, parenting stress and attachment relationships, on the relationship between exposure to war related traumatic events and children’s mental health problems. Consequently, I have collected data from two Syrian schools in Istanbul with 322 Syrian children aged between 8-18 years, and their parents.
According to the preliminary analysis of my data, more than 97% of Syrian children had experienced one or more traumatic events, 52% reported possible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and one in three children suffered from other significant emotional and behavioural problems. Boys had experienced more traumatic events than girls, and reported more overall mental health problems. Children who securely attached to parents and who perceived their parents as emotionally warmth experienced less mental health problems.
This is my project as a PhD student at University of Leicester. However, the beginning of my journey to Leicester dates two years ago in Istanbul, where we first met with Professor Panos Vostanis, who is my current supervisor. I met with Panos in Istanbul to introduce him to my friend Hatice Sen, who is the project co-ordinator and Psychologist for a Foundation called ‘Hayat’. Hayat Health and Social Services Foundation is a non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports children who work on the streets because of economic difficulties of their families. Their staff consists of psychologists, teachers and social workers, who provide educational, psychosocial and economic support to nearly 100 children at any one time, to prevent them from going back to the streets, instead to re-unite them with their families and continue their education.
The Hayat Foundation has since become the partner centre in Turkey for the World Awareness for children in Trauma programme (WACIT: www.wacit.org), whose objective is to develop and evaluate a psychosocial intervention model for children who experience complex trauma in low- and middle-income countries. Panos’ first visit and training programme at the Hayat involved a US-based NGO, Invest in Children, that delivered creative activities to the children, and a local therapist on enhancing nurturing strategies (theraplay) to staff and volunteers in October 2015.
Three months after the first meeting, I started this long journey which is called ‘PhD’ at the University of Leicester, with Syrian children in my mind. The multicultural structure of Leicester, its diversity, the success of Leicester City and, of course, the numerous opportunities that the University of Leicester provides have all enabled me to survive in a foreign country without any difficulty. Time has flied and, after a busy year writing the literature review, data collection in Turkey and several presentations within the University, this autumn we are heading back to Istanbul with Panos, as part of the ‘6 Continents in 6 Weeks’ phase, to re-unite with the enthusiastic staff and volunteers at the Hayat Foundation.
Before the staff and volunteer training, it is planned to organise a day with music, games and drawing activities with the children. Besides the Turkish children who are attending the Hayat services, we will also involve the Syrian refugee children who participated in my study. By mixing the two groups, as we did at the first creative workshop with Invest in Children last year, we hope to enhance their integration and social functioning. Frankly, it is likely that, at the beginning of that first workshop, they were not very friendly to each other. Initially, Turkish children did not show great hospitality to their Syrian peers, who arrived at the Hayat speaking a different language and looking different. It was so refreshing to see them interact pretty quickly by playing, singing and drawing pictures together.
It was just amazing to see how Syrian children eluded themselves from feelings of discrimination and anomy, whilst the Turkish ones broke down their prejudice about Syrians that they may have probably modelled through their parents. Furthermore, teachers and volunteers witnessed how fast children adapted to the situation through music, drama and games. This resilience-building approach is central to the WACIT vision. So, it was a true ‘win-win-win’ situation. I feel extremely fortunate, as this is not a kind of opportunity that every PhD student has, i.e. to have fun with the children (and with your supervisor!).