Syria's traumatized refugee children will be the ones to rebuild their country

Editor's note: Cassandra Nelson has been an
aid worker with Mercy Corps since 2002. She
has been a first-responder to almost every
major humanitarian crisis over the past
decade including the 2004 Boxing Day
tsunami, the Iraq war, the Haiti earthquake
and the 2011 famine in Mogadishu.
Lebanon (CNN) -- The UNHCR has
announced that we have reached the one
millionth Syrian child refugee mark. It is a
terrifying statistic if you really digest it and
don't just read it as a sanitized account of a
tragic war.
I've been working with Mercy Corps
responding to the Syrian refugee crisis for
over a year and have met hundreds of
refugees, many of them children.
Recently I was at one of our activity centers
in Baalbek, Lebanon, where we work with
traumatized children. Most of the kids were
participating in the organized games and
activities, but on the sidelines I saw a little
boy sitting alone and staring at nothing.
I approached him to see if he was OK, but he
didn't look at me. As I came closer I saw his
hair had patches of grey at the temples. He
was frail and his brows furrowed with worry.
He was clearly a boy, but looked very old. He
told me his name was Mustafa.
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When I first asked him to tell
me what had happened in Syria
he didn't answer me. He just
looked away and pretended not
to hear. His eyes were dark
and unreadable. He seemed to
be holding terrible secrets
I tried another tack and asked
him if he had any brothers or
sisters. Slowly Mustafa replied
that he had six siblings. After
some coaxing, Mustafa opened
up and told me a little more.
He was 12 years old and lived
in Aleppo, Syria, before he
came to Lebanon with his
family six months ago.
In Syria, Mustafa lived in a
home on a large plot of land.
He spent his days at school
with his friends, and then came
home and took care of his
lambs. He was raising six
lambs and caring for them was
his favorite part of the day.
The family home in Aleppo was
near a weapons factory that
was under the control of the
government forces. For the
first two years of the conflict,
there wasn't any significant
fighting in the area, so the
family hadn't made plans to
leave. But six months ago, the
Free Syrian Army (FSA) began
an attack to try to take over
the weapons factory. Without
any warning, the family found
themselves in the middle of a war zone.
Mustafa recalled how the bombs started
falling near their house and the ground shook
under his feet. He remembered his mother
screaming and his sisters crying. Finally his
parents told the children that they had to
leave immediately. Mustafa tried to go out to
the field to gather his lambs, but his father
forbade him.
At this point, Mustafa stopped speaking. He
sat silently, holding back a flood of tears.
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His elder sister, Fatima, joined us and helped
to complete his story. The family started to
run from the house, toward the village. She
pulled Mustafa away from the house as they
fled. Every time she let go of his hand, he
kept trying to run to get his lambs, even as
the bombs were coming closer and closer.
The family managed to flee the village and
spent two days on a cramped bus to reach
Lebanon. They had to cross many checkpoints
along the route. Some were run by
government troops, others by rebel militias or
FSA. At each checkpoint the bus would stop
and men with guns would force some of the
passengers to get off the bus, and then the
bus would go on without them. Fatima didn't
remember anyone speaking during the long
trip. It was as if everyone was holding their
breath, but at night she could hear people
crying in the dark.
The family arrived in Baalbek with only the
clothes they were wearing. They didn't have
any friends or relatives in Lebanon and there
are no official refugee camps, so they rented
part of a house to live in. The family of nine
members is crowded into two rooms that
serve as their kitchen, living area, bathroom
and sleeping quarters. During the winter it
was cold and damp and the roof leaked.
Now, in the blazing summer heat, the small
space is like an oven.
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Since arriving in Lebanon, Mustafa and his
siblings have not attended school. Like most
refugee kids, they face language barriers as
Syrian children are educated in Arabic, while
in Lebanon education is provided primarily in
French or English. The school is overcrowded
and they don't have money for buses and
school supplies. Mustafa spends most of his
days helping his parents. He misses his lambs
and says he is lonely and hasn't made any
friends yet.
Mustafa is not an isolated case. Mercy Corps
has conducted regular assessments of the
psychosocial health of refugee children in
Lebanon and found that more than 55% of
the youth assessed experience constant fear
that something bad will happen and are
unable to express their feelings about the
conflict. Almost half (46%) feel disconnected
from others and have trouble making friends,
and more than two-thirds (70%) have trouble
sleeping or wet the bed.
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As the number of refugees forced to flee
Syria's civil war continues to grow rapidly,
one number stays the same -- more than half
of them are children. Every day, thousands
more are ripped from their homes and
schools, left with painful memories of
violence and confusion over what they've
lost. Many of them live in constant fear and
uncertainty and have lost hope for the future.
Mercy Corps has been focused on protecting
these youngest refugees since the start of
the crisis. We created safe spaces and
developed constructive activities where they
can heal from trauma, build friendships and
develop critical life skills. We are helping
meet their families' basic needs, while
continually finding new ways to ensure their
emotional health and development are not
The reality is that we don't know when this
crisis will end. But when it does, these
children will be the ones left to rebuild their
lives and their country.
Today, was Mustafa's first time attending a
Mercy Corps youth program. He started the
day out alone on the margins of the
activities. But after some counseling and a
lot of encouragement from our staff, he
joined the other children. I watched him
throughout the day and saw him start to
relax, make friends and even laugh a few
times. And as he was leaving, he promised
me he'd be back for the next session.