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Helping Libya’s distressed children

Children react to stress and traumatic events in a number of ways.  I remember, aged nine or so, watching a horror movie with my older sister which terrified me. For the next two nights I had terrible nightmares, shouting out to my mum for comfort.

Imagine how some of the children we’re supporting in Libya might be reacting – children who have seen family members killed or injured in front of them, whose homes have been hit by mortars and shells,  lost contact with siblings, harassed or even attacked by armed men during their hasty journeys to escape the conflict.

Imagine how they might jump or cower when they hear celebratory gunfire.  We’re speaking to parents who say that their children are displaying the signs of stress and depression – nightmares and night screams, bedwetting, stammering, withdrawing.

Building resilience

One of the ways we’re trying to address these problems is through Child Resilience workshops, and I was fortunate to visit two of these last week.

These workshops consist of 16 sessions and are being run in 15 different sites around Benghazi. Approximately 18 girls and boys aged 10-14 years attend each workshop and the majority of these children are IDPs – internally displaced people who have fled to Benghazi from conflict-affected towns such as Ajdabia and Misrata.

In addition, we meet with their parents, who themselves are sometimes struggling, and advise them on ways to identify behavioural problems and provide tools for addressing these.

Child resilience workshop in Libya
Khalifa shyly telling the facilitators some of his defining personality features.

 

Express and cooperate

The workshop, led by two facilitators who received four days of specialist training from Save the Children’s Child Resilience Advisor, utilises games, contests, activities and discussions to encourage children to express themselves, improve their co-operation and peaceful relationships between each other and adults, focus on a positive future, build their confidence and develop positive coping mechanisms.

The facilitators are generally skilled teachers, psychologists or social workers, so the skills we have taught them are likely to be utilised in their every day activities beyond the workshops.

In one workshop I visited, the children were asked to write on paper some facts about themselves, things they thought define them, both positive and negative.  They then selected their favourite 3 and read them out to the group.  “I like football” was a popular choice for the boys, “I like my teachers” and “I love my friends” were also recurring themes.

Libyan pride

I particularly liked one boy’s comment that he’s sometimes a noisy person!  A lot of children commented that they were proud to be Libyans.

While they enjoyed contests such as tug-of-war and musical chairs, there was also an emphasis on respect and order.  Each workshop agrees a set of ground rules in their first session, and draws up a poster of these which are taped to the wall in subsequent sessions.

They include things like respecting each others’ opinions, listening and not talking over each other, keeping the room tidy and clean, excusing themselves if they want to leave the room.

I was struck by how friendly and open the children were — considering that most of them have been thrown together from different towns and had only started the workshops a few days ago.

War experience

Generally they were chatty and laughing, interested in what the facilitators and other children were saying.  But I noticed that when they started to talk about their own personal experience of the conflict, their face became more serious, the childish sparkle in their eyes would dim a little, their head drop and their voice quieten.

The facilitators would respond with words of comfort and support, asking other children if they had similar experiences, showing them that these fears and experiences were shared and understood.  Soon enough there would be a humorous comment and a burst of laughter around the group.

At the end of a workshop I spoke to 10 year old Khalifa, as he had revealed to the group that sadly today was his last day because his father was taking the family back to Ajdabia.  He was clearly upset to be leaving the relative calm and safety of Benghazi and also leaving the new friends that he had made during his 6 week stay.

Home destroyed

He told me that he was afraid to go back to Ajdabia, he feared that it was unsafe there.  This is understandable for a boy who had seen his home destroyed in the heavy fighting Ajdabia endured.

He was sad that he’d lost all his toys, but grateful that none of his family had been seriously injured – only his uncle had suffered a shrapnel injury to his leg.  I asked him what he thought of the Child Resilience workshops – he told me was enjoying the games, in fact he enjoyed the whole programme.

And when I asked what he had learnt, this 10 year old boy responded with an answer which touched all of us present – he said that he had learnt “friendship, and that it is not [defined] through gifts and games, but through love”.

Touched

I left the workshop feeling touched by the children who had been in some ways so normal — cheeky, bashful, energetic — but in other subtle ways had demonstrated how much this conflict has affected them.

Through Save the Children’s support they are gradually learning the tools to help them, and by extension their families, cope more effectively with these difficult experiences and challenging new situation.

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This post was written by Rikke Gormsen, a Child Resilience advisor in Libya.

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