World Humanitarian Day – August 19 2019

Healing the trauma of Syrian children

In her 20 years as a mental health worker, Teresa Ngigi says the atrocities experienced by children in Syria are some of the worst she has ever seen.

Ms Ngigi, an expert and author in the field of childhood trauma, supports the mental health of children and caregivers in SOS Children’s Villages’ programmes, particularly in those countries with a history of civil war and conflict.

Still, nothing quite prepared her for what she heard from Syrian children both in Syria and Lebanon.

“They have gone through so much suffering,” says Ms Ngigi, speaking recently from Lebanon where she assessed 28 Syrian refugee children.

“The stories of what these children have gone through are atrocious. This has been the most harrowing experience in my career,” she says.

Many tell her horror stories of witnessing death first hand. Additionally they suffered abandonment, neglect and abuse in Syria or later in refugee camps.

Children need a place to call home

Ms Ngigi trains SOS caregivers and social workers to identify and deal with the mental health needs of children and adults. In her three years with SOS, she has spent extended periods in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Mozambique, Somalia, Lebanon, Egypt, among other countries.

Since January 2018, she has concentrated on assessing the mental health needs of children in Syria. She also worked to ensure the proper transition of children in interim care centres to a stable environment, such as through family reunification or care in SOS families.

“Children need stability. Children need predictability, and children need to feel there is a place they can call home,” says Ms Ngigi.

In Lebanon, home to more than a million Syrian refugees, she recently assessed Syrian children who had spent time in a refugee camps and shelters. She recalls the case of four siblings who witnessed a murder, which led to the imprisonment of their parents, and left them alone in the camp. The children - aged between a few months to seven years - wandered from tent to tent with no one willing to care for them.

The head of the camp alerted SOS Children’s Villages Lebanon, which took in the siblings. “When these children came to SOS, they were in a very terrible condition. They were really traumatised because they had witnessed horrific things,” Ms Ngigi says. “They were received by one SOS mother who, when she saw the oldest child clinging onto her baby brother, vowed to dedicate her life to help these children feel like children again.”

‘I can’t ask for more’

Three years on, the children have made great progress. “They’re active, enthusiastic about life, and brilliant in school,” she explains. “They’ve developed what we call post-traumatic growth and resilience in such a powerful way. That’s why I have a lot of hope in SOS because it literally saves lives.”

Ms Ngigi, a native of Kenya who lives in Italy with her husband and a teenage daughter and son, says she feels fulfilled by the contribution she is able to make as a humanitarian mental health worker.

 “When you see children thriving, children growing, children glowing – actually smiling and being happy - that is the best fulfilment one can have. I can’t ask for more.”

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