Nine years of war in Syria have given 14-year-old Kareem Haddad (name changed to protect his security) a lot of reasons to want to study medicine, especially neurology.
When Kareem was in second grade, his father, a pharmacist, was killed by shrapnel on the streets of Jaramana.
A couple of years later, a mortar fell so close to Kareem’s school that parents were called to get their children. On the way home, another mortar shell exploded, killing many people and injuring the spine of a woman he knew.
His friend’s father was paralyzed after shrapnel pierced his spinal column as he was getting out of his car to shop. As Kareem explored medical websites to find out more about the man’s condition, he became intrigued.
“My dream now is to become a neurologist, to treat people with nerve and brain diseases,” he said. “I want to continue reading medical books even after finishing my studies and try my best to increase my knowledge, for no matter how much I study, there will always be new information.”
Kareem may be able to bring good out of the trauma he experienced in this way because of support and encouragement he receives at Al Asieh, a private school supported by a Mennonite Central Committee partner, Middle East Council of Churches, or MECC. He is able to attend because MCC funding allows the school to give his mother a tuition break.
Kareem learns from teachers who have had MCC-supported training on how to work with traumatized children. They understand the need to build a connection with students, both Muslim and Christian, through kindness and empathy as negative behaviors surface from their pain.
With this kind of support at school and at home, Kareem seems able to look to the future with hope. But many other children live out their trauma in fear, anxiety, anger and violence.
“This is a wartime generation, a crisis generation,” said Laila Dawood Rajha, principal of Al Ahlieh, another private school in Jaramana supported through MCC and MECC. “Students prior to the war were more ethical, and their behavior was better. Now there is violence; their language is anger.”
She said parents and educators must work together to help children move beyond fear, anxiety and anger and experience gentler feelings again.
MCC has supported children’s education and trauma training at multiple schools in Syria and has funded programs that nurture children’s social and emotional well-being.
For years, MCC’s partners also distributed food baskets to vulnerable people, often families with one parent or many children. MCC’s partners continue to provide food to those in need, and they are turning attention to helping people have skills and resources to earn a living.
Through MCC’s partnership with MECC, women who became sole wage earners and young people whose education was interrupted because of the war received training in cellphone repair, cooking and hairdressing.
During the war, Rana Hasan’s husband was paralyzed while serving in the military. She had surgery for breast cancer and treatment for other health issues. They needed to sell their house. Their three children’s anxiety worsened.
Hasan joined MECC’s free hairstyling class and learned how to cut, dye and style hair. She now takes clients in her home, where she also can tend to her children’s and husband’s needs.
Work has been steady, which lightened her emotional and financial burdens and lifted her family’s spirits.
MCC’s partners in other areas of Syria are replacing farm equipment and livestock destroyed during the war. Women are learning how to start their own businesses to sell home-canned foods.
Economic security is important for families, but emotional security is a valuable partner.
“The atmosphere of war and fear, the horror we experienced, was very difficult,” said Amena, the mother of 9-year-old Haneen. Her daughter was terrified by the sounds of exploding mortar shells and rockets when she was a small child.
When Haneen was 6, her mother enrolled her and her two sisters in Child Friendly Spaces, an effort that MCC supports through Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue.
CFS gives children the opportunity to build trust as they play together and participate in classes that encourage them to express emotions through drama, art and music.
Amena said CFS has helped to relieve Haneen’s fears by getting her away from the atmosphere of war and fear.
“It keeps her entertained. She plays here, meets her friends, and it makes her active,” she said.
The children also have learned about more peaceful ways to live than what they have seen and experienced in the last nine years.
Amena remembers Haneen saying: “Mom, we learned that we mustn’t fight with each other; we have to love each other more. We must not insult each other but love each other instead.”
Learning about a new way to live now and in the future is important for children who are recovering, said George Sarkis, who took part in MCC training sessions and works with children in Damascus. As coordinators introduce children to new possibilities, children begin to hope that they may have a good future.
Kareem’s hopes to become a neurologist help him to move toward the future, but a career is not all he sees.
“My first wish is that conditions and social situations will get better in Syria,” he said, “that there will be no more war or problems, to be good people, united, to help each other.”