Mental health support for children in Syria: Poems of loss and displacement

"I still remember vividly the first time I saw seven-year-old Maida"

The landscape flows like a roller coaster over many kilometres, along gravel, sand, and green grass rising after the rains. Some buildings near the road are left as rubble - abandoned.
Amidst the cloudy-misty weather, suddenly dots of colour: white, blue and some red ones too. White or sand-coloured tents with blue caps and red water tanks mark the fenced-off home of between 12,000 and 17,000 internally displaced Syrians, and some Iraqis. The camp is built on a huge field close to the city of Ain Issa in northern Syria.
The white tents with blue tarpaulins at the camp for displaced people in Ain Issa, Syria
The white and blue tents of the camp. Photo: Eddy Van Wessel.
During this rainy winter period the soil turns into a mixture of mud and gravel, creating pools of water along the pathways around the small tented homes, each housing 10 to 20 people.
MSF works here in an out-patient clinic providing health promotion and health monitoring, wound care, a nutrition project, ambulance referrals for emergency cases and a mental health team. Work is underway on a primary health care centre that will specialise in treating non-communicable diseases: things like diabetes and heart disease.
Our mental health team offers psychiatric and psychological consultations, either in people’s tents or at the clinic, as well as supportive counselling.
The MSF / Doctors Without Borders mental health team at Ain Issa camp in Syria
The mental health team at the camp. Photo: MSF.
I still remember vividly the first time I saw seven-year-old Maida*, together with her father and her little brother, coming for a consultation. Both the children were closely attached to their father’s body, one under each arm, clingy and anxious about what was going to happen.
Maida was hiding behind the father’s back looking suspiciously at me and the doctor. All the things we tried, that usually work so well with children, just didn’t seem trustworthy to her.
Her father told us that Maida had been bedwetting now for several months, seemed to have nightmares, wouldn’t listen to him anymore and was getting more irritable and aggressive towards others.
Asked for the whereabouts of the children’s mother, her father whispered that she was with relatives in the south. He told us later that their mother had died during an airstrike about seven months before, but he was too afraid to tell his children because they were already suffering so much.
Kids walk on a sandy track among the white tents at Ain Issa camp, Syria

Children at the camp. Photo: Agnes Varraine-Leca

We saw Maida regularly each week for follow-up sessions; she gradually opened up, playing and drawing and even speaking a few words.
When the family didn’t show up for 2-3 weeks, I went to visit them. I found them together at their tent, surrounded by mud and puddles. They were heartily welcoming and delighted to see us.
The father had fallen ill and had needed to go to the hospital. During that time, his sister-in-law seemed to have talked to Maida about the mother’s whereabouts. Maida’s behaviour had improved, and she had started caring for the father and nursing him, even at her young age.
When I saw her the following week, Maida was more open to walking around and leaving her father’s side. She wanted to sit and to draw and looked out for my support. We drew her mother in the sky, smiling and waving, above the white and blue tents and red latrines underneath, watching over her.
If somebody asked Maida now, she would say, my mother is not with us anymore, but I hope that she was able to go to another country to find peace.
We are still following-up on both Maida and her father, to ensure that her improvement is sustained and to monitor the family’s general health.
* Names have been changed.