Tag Archive: children

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.

Syria refugee crisis: Facts you need to know

Updated January 31, 2017
by World Vision US Staff

The Syria civil war, now in its sixth year, is “a slaughterhouse, a complete meltdown of humanity, the apex of horror,” U.N. emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien told the U.N. Security Council Jan. 26. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 11 million from their homes. In many cases, children caught up in this crisis have fared the worst, losing parents or friends to the violence, suffering physical and psychological trauma, or falling years behind in school.

Here is a little bit about the conflict, its effect on families, and how World Vision is helping them.

Syrian refugee crisis explained: Fast facts
– 13.5 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance due to a violent civil war that began in 2011.
– 4.9 million Syrians are refugees, and 6.1 million are displaced within Syria; half of those affected are children.
– Children affected by the Syrian conflict are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited. Millions have been forced to quit school. View these photos to see life through
the eyes of Syrian refugee children.
– Most Syrian refugees remain in the Middle East, in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt; slightly more than 10 percent of the refugees have fled to Europe.
– Peace negotiations continue despite a fraying and piecemeal ceasefire.

Children under siege in Aleppo
“The children of Syria have experienced more hardship, devastation, and violence than any child should have to in a thousand lifetimes,” says Dr. Christine Latif, World Vision’s response manager for Turkey and northern Syria.

World Vision staff say the situation in Aleppo city is the most dire they have ever seen it. Health supplies and clean water are urgently needed. Aid hasn’t reached the city since mid-July.

“Civilians have been continually in harm’s way, caught in the cross-fire and changing front lines.  Civilian infrastructure has been targeted, leading to mass civilian casualties, including women and children,” says Angela Huddleston, program manager for the World Vision’s Syria response.

World Vision is helping about 100,000 people fleeing recent violence in Aleppo with:
– Clean water and sanitation services
– Primary and mobile health clinic support
– Women and young child centers
– Support for a women and children’s hospital with equipment and supplies

Help children and families fleeing violence in Syria. Donate Now

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Shy and fearful, Mohamed, 2, seldom ventures from his family’s tent without holding tightly to his cousin Malak’s hand. Both his parents died in Syria. For the past five months, he’s lived with 13 aunts, uncles, and cousins in a homemade tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. (©2016 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

World Vision’s work in Syria

– Food assistance
– Primary healthcare in health facilities and mobile clinics
– Medical and nutritional aid for women and children
– Baby care kits for displaced families
– Water and sanitation services
– Child protection outreach to communities
– Psychosocial care and play for children

Why are Syrians leaving their homes?
Violence: Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, as many as 386,000 people have been killed, including nearly 14,000 children, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The war has become more deadly since foreign powers joined the conflict.
Collapsed infrastructure: Within Syria, 95 percent of people lack adequate healthcare, 70 percent lack regular access to clean water. Half the children are out of school. The economy is shattered and four-fifths of the population lives in poverty.
Children in danger and distress: Syrian children — the nation’s hope for a better future — have lost loved ones, suffered injuries, missed years of schooling, and witnessed unspeakable violence and brutality. Warring parties forcibly recruit children to serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles, according to the U.S. State Department.

Most refugees from Syria are still in the region. They’ve fled violence and sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Around 10% are taking the dangerous journey to Europe.

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Most refugees from Syria are still in the region. They’ve fled violence and sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Around 10 percent are taking the dangerous journey to Europe. (©2016 World Vision)

How does the war in Syria affect children?
Read about how the war is affecting Syria’s children in a special report from World Vision magazine, “Syria Crisis and the Scars of War.
– Children are susceptible to malnutrition and diseases brought on by poor sanitation, including diarrheal diseases like cholera. Cold weather increases the risk of pneumonia and
other respiratory infections.
– Many refugee children have to work to support their families. Often they labor in dangerous or demeaning circumstances for little pay.
– Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions. Without adequate income to support their families and fearful of their
daughters being molested, parents — especially single mothers — may opt to arrange marriage for girls, some as young as 13.
– Between 2 million and 3 million Syrian children are not attending school. The U.N. children’s agency says the war reversed 10 years of progress in education for Syrian children.

What are the refugees’ greatest needs?
– Syrians fleeing conflict need all the basics to sustain their lives: food, clothing, health assistance, shelter, and household and hygiene items.
– They need reliable supplies of clean water, as well as sanitation facilities.
– Children need a safe environment and a chance to play and go to school.
– Adults need employment options in case of long-term displacement.
– Prayer: Learn how you can pray for Syrian refugees. Join with others as we pray for refugees.
– Compassion: Read this article in Christianity Today by World Vision President Rich Stearns about treating refugees with the compassion of Christ.

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Ali, 13 sells tissues on the Damascus highway so his family can pay rent. Ali works to support the family and doesn’t attend school. He tries to be a tough guy, but sometimes he cries when people on the street say ugly things to him.  (©2016 World Vision/photo by Jon Warren)

How is World Vision helping refugees and others affected by the Syrian refugee crisis?
Since the Syria crisis began in 2011, World Vision has helped more than 2 million people in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Learn more about how World Vision responds to emergencies with short-term relief and long-term recovery.
Syria: Food aid, health assistance, hygiene support, baby care kits, water and sanitation, shelter repair kits, and winterization supplies.
Iraq: Food aid, health services, water and sanitation, baby kits, stoves and other winter supplies; for children: education and recreation, programming for life skills, peace building, and resilience.
Jordan and Lebanon: Personal and household supplies, clean water and sanitation, education and recreation, Child-Friendly Spaces and child protection training for adults, winter kits, and psychosocial support for children.

Reporting from Brian Jonson and Patricia Mouamar, World Vision communications staff in Lebanon and Jordan, and Chris Huber, Kathryn Reid, and Denise C. Koenig from World Vision U.S.

Help children and families fleeing the violence in Syria