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The physical trauma of the Syrian conflict will forever be etched in our minds: images of entire towns razed to the ground; people with life-changing scars; the millions forced to flee across borders in search of sanctuary. Yet the psychological trauma of war – particularly for the millions of children caught up in the conflict – is harder to see.

Recognising this, the British Red Cross has been working with our partners, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to make sure children and adults receive emotional and psychological support.

Hiba runs a Red Crescent community centre in Dweila, in rural Damascus. It hosts a psychosocial programme that simply offers children a chance to do normal childhood things and to express themselves through art.

It’s in the children’s artwork that some of the mental scars start to show.

“Today we set a simple, fun task to colour in the butterflies however they like. They can choose the colours and the patterns,” said Hiba.

“Other times the children do free drawing when they draw what they want. Often they want to draw something to show a situation that happened to them, or a memory.

“Many of the children have suffered a lot, and they can explain this in drawing more than talking sometimes, or it is a way to start a conversation.”

In the room next door, Hala is sat doing ‘free drawing’. In black and white, the 11-year-old draws her family. There’s a gap between her mother and father.

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“My father is in Beirut with my step-sister,” she explained. “Two years ago we all tried to go to Lebanon, but there was fighting and we got split up.

“Me and my brothers and my mum came back. We stayed in a destroyed car. Then the car was bombed. My mum and my brother were injured, I was injured too in my legs.”

Hala added: “I only do sad drawings now. I don’t like to show happiness. I can explain myself when I draw, it’s like grabbing something and smashing it down on the ground – I do this but on paper.

“I don’t like colours. They remind me of things I’ve seen. I only like blue, it reminds me of the peace dove.

“When I grow up I want to be a doctor. I’m already in the class above my age. After I graduate I will work for free to help people damaged by war.”

A room of laughter

While stories like Hala’s are not uncommon, today the art room is a hive of youthful exuberance.

Colourful images, crayons, paper, scissors and glue are strewn across the tables as children set about creating their butterflies.

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“Sometimes we do group activities, where each child can define something about themselves, express a wish for the future, or remind themselves of the positive things in their lives,” explained Hiba.

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In the above photo, each child has drawn and cut out their hand shape. They then fill it with things they like – “I like to eat!”, “I like my father”, “I like to travel”.

This exercise helps the children to know they matter and they can express their personality.

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This is a group mosaic, in which every child creates an image about something important to them, such as flags, boats, planes, while some drew hearts to represent love.

In the room next door, a group of children are using their arts and craft skills to make money boxes.

Empty containers are being transformed with glue guns and googly eyes. The room is full of jokes, laughter and good-humoured teasing.

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The centre has been instrumental in bringing the children together to make friends. Many of them say they had no friends before coming here, as most had been displaced from other areas due to the violence.

With the class leader, the youngsters had discussed the importance of saving money to plan for the future, although whose future they’re saving for is debatable.

Yazan, 12, has been coming to the centre for half his life.

“I want to save 10,000SYP (£40) to buy my mum something for Mother’s Day,” said Yazan, a picture of innocence. His friend, Ahmed, is aiming slightly lower – 520SYP (£2).

After a bit of teasing, they reveal what they’re really saving up for: “A mobile phone – for my mother – and me too!”

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Yazan, Ahmed and Armar, another friend, pictured at the art class.

The centre has been instrumental in bringing children together to make friends. The Red Crescent can also help the children with learning to read and write.

Dr Hosam Faysal, who heads up our work in Syria, explained the importance of such projects.

“The health of an individual isn’t just about their physical wellbeing and their access to food, shelter and other such relief,” he said.

“You also need to consider people’s mental wellbeing. They need to be able to reflect on their own situation in a safe environment. Children need a safe space to chat with friends and just be children.

“In adults, we often find that the mental stress of open warfare and violence is aggravated by the loss of regular income the family needs to survive.

“And when people come to Red Crescent health centres seeking treatment for ailments, more often than not they will be suffering psychologically.

“This is why our psychosocial programmes in Syria and neighbouring countries are so important.”

  • Please donate to our Syria Crisis Appeal to support our life-saving work
  • ‘To see a child in trouble is like being struck in the heart’ – A doctor’s view of operating on Syria’s broken bones