Tag Archive: child friendly spaces

Syria’s children – how conflict can harm brain development

By Alison Schafer
Senior Programme Advisor
Mental Health & Psychosocial Support
World Vision International

The Syria conflict has been raging for over six years. In times of war, children are among the most vulnerable groups. Even though most will survive the conflict physically, the immediate and long-term well-being of children remains a serious concern for humanitarian organisations, like World Vision.

Conflict situations commonly expose children to extremely stressful and terrifying events. World Vision has heard from children who have escaped Syria, speak about both witnessing and being victims of violence; losing parents and loved ones; and being displaced.

Children also tell us about the daily challenges they face living with those who love them, who are themselves dealing with personal experiences of war and displacement and unable to be as supportive or loving as they once were. These ongoing stresses can have strong and lasting effects on children’s socio-emotional well-being and their growing brains.

And a vast number of children have been impacted by this crisis: more than four million children in need in Syria, and more than one million child refugees now living in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

Research suggests that the physical consequences of conflict on a child’s brain development can have adverse and marked consequences – with the potential for permanent changes to the brain’s architecture. Without adequate intervention and the presence of protective and caring relationships, Syria’s war could have a lasting impact on children’s learning abilities, memory, social interactions, stress and fear responses, and the ability to control emotions. The experiences of Syria’s war-affected children could lead to a generation of children experiencing long-term mental health, social and economic problems.


“My grandchildren have never had a beautiful day in their lives,” says the grandmother of Fatima, 4. “The older girls barely talk, and when other children cry, they curl up with their hands to their ears and rock.” Photo by Jon Warren

Click here for more information on how to help these children cope with stress.

It is a common misconception that young children do not understand stressful or violent events and so are not as affected as adults. But their young minds process much more than is often credited.  World Vision has often observed this in children affected by crises: their developmental milestones can be delayed, their capacity for higher education attainment is jeopordised and their behaviour, emotional attachments and social environments are also impacted. Most often, crises induce severe and chronic stress among children.

Research shows that “toxic stress” – when the stress response system is activated over a prolonged period without the buffering presence of protective and caring relationships – leads to elevated levels of the cortisol stress hormones in the brain. This impacts the brain’s hippocampus and leads to children having learning difficulties, problems with short-term memory and difficulty controlling emotions.

Humanitarian organisations often see children exhibiting limited concentration, behavioural and emotional self-control in the remedial, recreation or education programmes they provide for children and adolescents.

During early childhood, the neural circuits of a child’s brain for responding to stress are particularly vulnerable to prolonged and elevated cortisol levels.  This can have permanent effects on a person’s ability to regulate stress and fear responses later in life and means they are more likely to develop anxiety, depression and a range of other mental, emotional and behavioural disorders. The long-term impacts aren’t limited to the brain. Research also shows a strong correlation between exposure to adverse childhood experiences and higher rates of heart, liver and lung disease in adulthood.

This evidence highlights the need for humanitarian agencies to go beyond delivering food, water and shelter and ensuring a child’s physical safety. Displaced children living in refugee camps, or in isolation from host communities, commonly face boredom, social exclusion and lack of stimulating activities or opportunities for play. On the surface, this may seem a minor concern. However, a lack of adequate stimulation can also be linked to significant neurological shifts in the developing brain.

In childhood, only the neurons and neural pathways that get used are strengthened in the brain, whereas those that are not used die out. The brain is like a muscle. It requires frequent repetitive use and stimulation – through environmental cues, relationships with family, social engagement and education. Neglect and under-stimulation of children affected by conflict can lead to severe impairments in the cognitive, physical and psychosocial development of the child, creating a lasting legacy of war.

This can lead to emotional, cognitive, and behavioural disorders, anxiety and depression, emotional and interpersonal difficulties, and significant learning difficulties.

World Vision prioritises setting up Child Friendly Spaces – safe places where children can play, learn, make friends, develop routines and be monitored for behavioural and emotional issues. The spaces are up and running in Lebanon and are hosting Syrian children.

Our research on Child Friendly Spaces for refugee children living in Ethiopia and Uganda found children participating in such programmes showed more sustained and consistent mental, social and emotional well-being than those refugee children who did not have such opportunities. The research highlights the importance of these spaces in minimizing long-term damage for children.

Children will then only have to deal with tolerable levels of stress – levels that don’t lead to lasting effects on the developing brain.

World Vision is responding to the Syria crisis. In addition to water, health and cash programmes, World Vision aims to scale up its children’s programming. In Lebanon and Jordan we are working to establish or delivering: child and adolescent friendly spaces for recreation and psychosocial support, remedial education initiatives, and maternal and child health programmes that can promote children’s support with their caregivers.

It takes a world to end violence against children! Click here to learn more about the fears and dreams of the Syrian children.

Safe places to be children

By Edmond Lee

April 7 marks World Health Day. This year, the focus issue is depression, an illness characterised by persistent sadness which affects a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks or maintain healthy relationships. Many depressed people suffer feelings like worthlessness and guilt. In the most severe cases, depression can lead to self-harm and suicide.

Worst of all, depression can happen to anyone, including children.

Emergency situations can be a major source of mental health issues. The WHO estimates that 1 in 5 people are affected by depression and anxiety during humanitarian emergencies and ongoing conflicts. For children, the trauma of being displaced and witnessing terrible things can leave scars that last into adulthood.

Whenever World Vision responds to an emergency, we are ready with food, water and other essentials. But we also recognise that fulfilling a child’s physical needs isn’t the end all be all; it is not enough for a child to be well-fed if they are suffering mentally and emotionally.

That is why we are always ready to give these children a place to heal.

Escaping the trauma of war

Mosul
A World Vision staff member chats with a boy who was displaced by conflict near Mosul, Iraq. 

During the recent military operations in Mosul, Iraq, many fleeing children arrived at relief camps petrified, struggling to express themselves, and in some cases too terrified to speak. Years of brutal occupation and terrible violence had taken a toll on their mental health.

“Many children have been stuck in their homes while bombings, sniper fire, or chaos ruled around them. Others have witnessed the death of family members,” said Aaron Moore, World Vision’s programs manager in northern Iraq. “Our Child-Friendly Spaces provide a safe place for children to come to terms with the violence they’ve seen and just take time to play as children again,”

One little boy had seen his 15-year-old brother killed when they fled. When he came under World Vision’s care, he was too terrified to even speak.

“Thankfully, with the support of a trained World Vision psychologist, he was able to say his name by the end of the day. However, this is just the beginning of what could be years of specialist support, as children begin to rebuild their lives and regain a sense of normality.”

Many children don’t want to play when they first come to the camps. “However, after a few days at the Child-Friendly Space with our staff, they’re slowly beginning to regain confidence and a sense of hope for the future,” says Aaron.

Art therapy

One important coping mechanism for traumatised children is art.

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Faras, 11, remembers happier days in Syria. Now the happiest thing in his life is coming to the Child-Friendly Space, so he draws the bus he rides.

At a Child-Friendly Space in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Syrian refugee children use art to express a wide range of feelings. When Faras, 11, draws a picture of his past in Syria, he sketches an idyllic landscape with a smiling sun, a rushing river, and a green field where he and his brother once looked after sheep. Habib, 9, uses a black crayon to outline a helicopter dropping bombs.

That’s appropriate, says Bassima, the supervisor, who is also a Syrian refugee. “We have a past that is both beautiful and ugly.”

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Habib, 9, recalls a helicopter dropping bombs near his home. “The house is okay. The bombs exploded the neighbours’ house. I saw it; many were killed,”

Animators, the adults who lead activities for different age groups of refugee children, don’t ask them about their painful experiences and losses.

“We provide a peaceful place for them to feel their freedom. It’s a safe place for them to experience feelings and memories,” says Bassima.

Even as they help children come to terms with the past, the staff members attending to the children are also concerned for their present and future.  Huda, an animator, says “Every day there is something sad [the children hear] about relatives in Syria. They need support not to be overwhelmed by sadness.”

Ahmad, a classroom animator for a group of 10- to 12-year-olds, echoes this sentiment as he pantomimes raising an umbrella in a circle of 12 boys and girls. As they mimic his motions, he calls the Child-Friendly Space an “umbrella of comfort and safety over your head.” Indeed, this ‘umbrella’ may be the only thing stopping these children from being washed away by a flood of fear, anxiety and depression.

As for what lies ahead, “The future is very important to us, the future for these children,” says Huda. “If we create this peaceful place for them, we’ve done what we can do.” Indeed, for children of conflict, a little peace may be all they need.

If you would like to support Child-Friendly Spaces (and physical relief) for children in humanitarian emergencies, please make a contribution to our Emergency Relief Fund

The stories and pictures in this post were adapted from articles featured on the World Vision US website.

Amira – CFS worker


Ralph Baydoun/World Vision

World Vision runs child friendly spaces (CFS) for Syrian children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The spaces provide the opportunity for children to play, learn and spend time with other children. Psychosocial support activities help children process their feelings.

When asking Amira about the reason she works in a CFS, the simple answer that you expect is a typical, “because I love my work”. What one doesn’t know is that Amira finished law school, and had many opportunities to work as a lawyer  but she chose to work with World Vision instead.

Why? ones asks, “The smile of a child is worth everything in this world” Amira says. It’s probably her role as a mother that made her feel this strong attachment towards children and why she has dedicated her life to this cause, or as she describes herself, “I have a soft spot for children, all children”

Every morning Amira wakes up with high hopes about the day to come. Her challenge is to make a change in children’s lives especially the children who attend the CFS. “This is my motivation, this is what keeps me going.” Amira adds.

World Vision works in cycles when it comes to the CFS. Every cycle is for a duration of 3 months. Amira can’t help but talk about how unpleasant is to be attached to children for 3 months and then not see them ever again. “They become part of a bigger family”, Amira tearfully says. Even the children’s families come begging Amira and the team to keep their children for another cycle due to the significant progress they showed!

Amira who is a Lebanese woman in her 40s, lived and survived the Lebanese civil war herself. Seeing the refugees remind her of herself in an earlier stage of her life. She knows exactly how they feel and what they need, and tries as much as she can to help them through their pain. “Because I know for a fact the children are vulnerable and they are the most affected, when it comes to their hygiene, education and physical and mental growth!”

During the the interview Amira explains how beautiful her childhood was and what she tries to do is to ease the childhood of these refugees a little because she believes that every child should live their childhood to the fullest!