In Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, working with children who have lived through war 

In Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, working with children who have lived through war

In winter clothing, a girl holds an infant in Za’atari, a camp for Syrian refugees
Both bundled in winter clothing, a girl holds an infant, in Za’atari, a camp for Syrian refugees on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. Many of the children suffer from profound stress. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1726/Al-Masri

AMMAN, Jordan, 7 January 2013 – Jane MacPhail shows me a mountain of drawings done by Syrian refugee children at the camp. We go through them together, and I notice that they are mostly happy images with no guns, tanks or blood. Report by Ara Yoo

They are drawings of homes, family members, flowers, butterflies, books and tables full of food. One girl has drawn a hand covered in henna and with a ring – her dream is to get married.

Imagining a world without war

Ms. MacPhail is a UNICEF Child Protection Specialist. She has green eyes and strawberry blond hair and wears funky orange and purple glasses. She oozes charisma from every pore. An ex-nurse from Australia, she developed a foster care blueprint in her native country and has worked in India, Indonesia, Liberia and the Philippines, to name a few.

It is not easy to get a hold of her. Six days a week, she travels to Za’atari Syrian refugee camp, an hour and a half north of Amman. An hour of her time is precious.
She makes children draw and imagine a world without war. “Syrian children have been through too much,” she says.

They have survived war, shelling, injuries and even torture. They have had to leave their home and country with the little they could carry. They’ve lost a sense of identity and hope.

UNICEF Child Protection Specialist
UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Jane MacPhail travels to the Za’atari camp six days a week. Ms. MacPhail works with the children to help them overcome the trauma of war. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Jordan/2013/Youngmeyer

Dealing with profound stress

Ms. MacPhail explains that children under profound stress lose a sense of belonging and security. “They do not feel pain or hunger. They switch to survival and instinct mode: flight, fight and freeze.” Their ability to reason, assess risk and empathize is diminished. They become emotionally detached, focusing solely on instant needs, instant gratification.

Children in the camps fight violently and throw stones at each other. The prolonged exposure to violence takes a toll on their health and behaviour, which includes aggressiveness, withdrawal and defiance.

This is where Ms. MacPhail comes in. She trains NGO and government staff on how to deal with profound stress and to initiate and sustain emotional dialogue with children. Through activities carried out at the Child Friendly Spaces (CFSs), they help children reconnect emotionally, to identify even the simplest things, such as being happy or sad.

She tells me the story of a girl at the camp. She’s often beaten up by her peers. She is isolated, withdrawn. Yet, although there is a language barrier between the girl and Ms. MacPhail, they connect with each other through emotional dialogue whenever they see each other. One day, Ms. MacPhail walked into the CFS and the girl came up to her. The girl took her hand and greeted her by kissing her on both cheeks. “She then touched my cheek. It was a moment of bliss. I knew she was going to be ok.”

This is why Ms. MacPhail does what she does. “I am a believer.”

Leaving survival mode

Children walk along a dirt road in the camp
Children walk along a dirt road in the camp. Working with the children and parents now will have an incredible impact on the rest of their lives. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1729/Malkawi

There is no way to know how long it can take for a child to be able to reconnect to her- or himself and to others. It really depends on the child.

Working with children and parents now will have an incredible impact on the rest of their lives. Children and parents alike need to re-learn how to play, to talk about feelings and to switch back from survival mode.

The psychosocial interventions conducted at the CFSs are as life-saving as water, food, warm clothes and vaccines – just in a different way. They are slightly more complex and less visible than a latrine or a school building, but as important, especially for the long term.

Help protect children
UNICEF | for every child

Stay informed

Add value to your inbox!
Sign up to keep up to date on what's going on around the world.