Syria's War Leaves Its Scars On The Children

  • Maysam Selmo, 8, during her first week at Albashayer School for Syrian Refugee Children in Antakya, Turkey. She and her extended family fled their village in northwestern Syria and now live in a crowded apartment.
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    Maysam Selmo, 8, during her first week at Albashayer School for Syrian Refugee Children in Antakya, Turkey. She and her extended family fled their village in northwestern Syria and now live in a crowded apartment.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Principal Sally Albunni enrolls  Nureddin, 11, (right) who arrived in Antakya with his mother after his father was killed two weeks earlier in Syria.
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    Principal Sally Albunni enrolls Nureddin, 11, (right) who arrived in Antakya with his mother after his father was killed two weeks earlier in Syria.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Teacher Rahaf Al Tinawie sets up a DVD player to show a video-story to her students. Tinawie teaches human resources at Albashayer and tries to help the children overcome the trauma most have experienced.
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    Teacher Rahaf Al Tinawie sets up a DVD player to show a video-story to her students. Tinawie teaches human resources at Albashayer and tries to help the children overcome the trauma most have experienced.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Cousins Suleiman Selmo, 9, and Kawthar Selmo, 10, receive donated clothes on their second day at the school. Many Syrian children and families are in need of basic supplies.
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    Cousins Suleiman Selmo, 9, and Kawthar Selmo, 10, receive donated clothes on their second day at the school. Many Syrian children and families are in need of basic supplies.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Teacher Emine Kusa leads a Turkish class for eighth-graders. Albashayer opened nearly two years ago when refugees began arriving in southern Turkey. A second building was recently opened to accommodate the growing number of students.
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    Teacher Emine Kusa leads a Turkish class for eighth-graders. Albashayer opened nearly two years ago when refugees began arriving in southern Turkey. A second building was recently opened to accommodate the growing number of students.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Children often show signs of trauma from their experiences inside Syria. A U.N. team interviewing Syrian kids in a refugee camp found that most lost a loved one in the fighting, and almost half have post-traumatic stress disorder.
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    Children often show signs of trauma from their experiences inside Syria. A U.N. team interviewing Syrian kids in a refugee camp found that most lost a loved one in the fighting, and almost half have post-traumatic stress disorder.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Teachers at the school are mostly devout Muslims. Between classes, teachers Rahaf Al Tinawie and Rola Kadi take a break to pray.
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    Teachers at the school are mostly devout Muslims. Between classes, teachers Rahaf Al Tinawie and Rola Kadi take a break to pray.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Children play during recess. The school is overcrowded with 500 students and new students constantly arriving. In one recent week, 115 new students enrolled.
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    Children play during recess. The school is overcrowded with 500 students and new students constantly arriving. In one recent week, 115 new students enrolled.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Many children wrestle and participate in aggressive play during recess, while others eat snacks and socialize. This rough play can be common with traumatized children.
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    Many children wrestle and participate in aggressive play during recess, while others eat snacks and socialize. This rough play can be common with traumatized children.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Rola Kadi, a Syrian-American from Michigan, has been volunteering as an art teacher at the school.
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    Rola Kadi, a Syrian-American from Michigan, has been volunteering as an art teacher at the school.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR
  • Children wait for minibuses to take them home after school. The school is free for Syrian children living in Turkey.
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    Children wait for minibuses to take them home after school. The school is free for Syrian children living in Turkey.
    Jodi Hilton for NPR

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The war in Syria is taking a huge toll on the children. An international team of researchers that interviewed Syrian kids in a refugee camp in Turkey found that 3 out of 4 have lost a loved one. Almost half have post-traumatic stress disorder and elevated levels of depression.

There are efforts to help, but it's challenging. In the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, the bell rings at 8 a.m. at the Friendship Elementary School. Syrian kids, in fresh school uniforms, cram into desks, with more than 40 students in every classroom.

The Turkish government provided the new building, with a garden and brightly painted walls. Syrian parents and volunteer teachers run the school, free of charge for the students, who number 270 and are increasing by the day.

The volunteer teachers offer the Syrian curriculum from textbooks collected from schools that have closed back home.

"Arabic, English, Turkish, art, everything," says Manal Khamis, who teaches English.

Some Syrian children play at wrestling and fighting during recess at the Albashayer School for Syrian Refugee Children. This type of play can be common among children who have witnessed traumatic events.

Some Syrian children play at wrestling and fighting during recess at the Albashayer School for Syrian Refugee Children. This type of play can be common among children who have witnessed traumatic events. Jodi Hilton for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jodi Hilton for NPR

Working With Traumatized Children

The school offers a few hours of normalcy for the children, but the war in Syria has already warped their lives.

Khamis recalls a boy who enrolled within days of fleeing the northern city of Aleppo after a bomb exploded in front of his house.

"He can't speak any word for three days," she says.

And so the teachers encouraged the silent boy to draw.

"He draws only windows –- closed windows –- and then he opened the window. Why? We don't know. We asked him, 'What do you mean by the open window?' He can't speak," Khamis says.

All the kids were sad when they were forced to leave home, says Khamis, who does her best to cheer her students.

These teachers were forced out, too. They are part of the professional class in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its business capital.

They bring specialized skills to this overcrowded school in Turkey. Manar Munal Hasan, a medical doctor, is now the school psychologist. She says she sees signs of trauma.

"They oftentimes get into fights and often I call their parents to come and to solve what has happened, and even the parents are surprised," Hasan says. The parents tell her: "Our children did not behave like this, they did not behave like that."

Teacher Rahaf Al Tinawie counsels a student outside class at the Albashayer School for Syrian Refugee Children. Al Tinawie says many children show signs of trauma and she sometimes meets with parents to discuss the problems the children are facing.

Teacher Rahaf Al Tinawie counsels a student outside class at the Albashayer School for Syrian Refugee Children. Al Tinawie says many children show signs of trauma and she sometimes meets with parents to discuss the problems the children are facing. Jodi Hilton for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jodi Hilton for NPR

Feeling Insecure

Though the children are now in a safe area in southern Turkey, many say they don't feel secure and worry about relatives still in Syria.

"All of my relatives, and my grandparents, are in Syria and I don't have anyone to play with," says Yaman, age 7, who comes from Aleppo. "They might die. Many things can happen."

A new study warns that Syrian children are the hidden casualty of the war.

Researchers from Turkish and American universities, as well as Norway's Institute of Public Health, interviewed more than 300 children in a refugee camp on the Turkish border.

Preliminary findings were released at a news conference in Washington. Dr. Selcuk Sirin, a psychology professor at New York University, says they are disturbing.

"We are talking about a very traumatized group," Sirin says. "If we do not do our job as an international community of adults, these kids will go untreated with high levels of depression, high levels of PTSD. This will come back and haunt us in the future."

The warning about a haunting future can be heard clearly in an old apartment building in Antakya, Turkey, which also serves as a school for Syrian refugees.

Rahaf Tinowi, who is only 20, works as the school councilor. She says the children have been damaged by the war.

They often dream about killing Syria's president, Bashar Assad, she says.

"Not all the families, but a lot of them, are always teaching the children, 'We have to kill them, to kill, kill, kill, all the family of Bashar,' " she says. "So that's our job. We have to change these views."

And it is a very hard job to change those views, she says quietly, after all that these children have witnessed.

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report from Washington.

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