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Syria’s Child Refugees: The Recovery that Can’t be Rushed

After leaving Syria, Rana is healing with help from Plan International.

Eleven-year-old Rana used to live in Aleppo, Syria, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.

Her hesitancy is understandable. Forced to flee by the ongoing conflict in her home country, Rana’s family arrived in a Cairo, Egypt suburb three years ago. It’s been a rollercoaster journey.

Having an Egyptian-born mother helped Rana settle in and master the dialect. She likes their apartment, she says, and has made friends from both countries—local Egyptians and fellow refugees. She enjoys playing football and hide-and-seek in her free time. When she is older she’ll be a doctor. But, for now, being a child is better than growing up, because “growing up means a lot of responsibilities.”

Despite the fact that she was 7 when she left her native country, Rana still insists she doesn’t remember Syria and that she most definitely doesn’t want to visit.

“I like Egypt most and I don’t want to go anywhere,” she said. “Egypt is better.”

Rana speaks freely and fluently about attending a Syrian-run facility providing schooling and psychosocial support to children between 4 and 14, many of whom have been left severely distressed by the war. The school is an implementing partner of Plan International, which has supported it to help often-vulnerable girls and boys to access the education system through education kits and classes, among other things. Girls and boys benefit equally from the project.

Rana’s mother, Aziza, revealed that in fact, her daughter can recall in detail everything about her hometown, right down to street names. It turns out she had been hesitant to discuss her former life for fear of being forced to return to it.

Rana, Aziza reveals, has been left distressed by the war in Syria and is feeling the effects.

“At the beginning she was terrified,” said Aziza. “She would put her hands over her ears because she was fearful of overhead planes passing through our house or landing on it. And I noticed that she started to bite her nails, which was a new habit for her.”

“We’d been living in a city that witnessed the war, so there were always airplanes flying and tanks standing around the city. Rana was terrified of the sound of planes.”

Rana’s school has helped her recover, Aziza said. But, it’s hard to shift the feeling that Rana might still have more to overcome.

The help Aziza refers to is provided by qualified psychologists like Yousry, whose group therapy and individual sessions support children to cope with their harrowing past and make sense of their puzzling present.

“Syrian children have been badly affected by the violence that was taking place back home, and by the things they have witnessed,” he said. “But they are also overwhelmed by separation from their families, and that has a negative impact on them.”

As a psychologist whose goals and objectives can’t be converted into facts and figures, how can he tell when his work with a severely distressed child has been successful?

“There are a few indicators of success when working with refugees and refugee children,” Yousry said. “First, to make the child capable of expressing themselves, to be able to speak about what is bothering them and how they feel at that moment. Also, when I see the child starting to integrate. And finally, when they tell me: ‘I have not forgotten what I went through, but I am doing my best to adapt and cope with my new reality.’”

If Rana has a way to go to reach that point, it’s to be expected. But with patient support from the Plan-supported school and her own family, she surely has a far better chance.

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