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Now in its eighth year, the Syrian conflict has taken an undue toll on the country’s youngest generation. According to a study by the Pulitzer Center, 79 percent of displaced Syrian children have experienced a death in their family, and nearly half show signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Although these children are in desperate need of mental health support, these services can be hard to access in countries where they have been forced to flee. According to the World Health Organization, for example, there are only 60 to 100 psychiatrists in Jordan, making it difficult to address the trauma and behavioral heath issues facing the country’s estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

Displaced Syrians Susanne Atassi and Layla Midani are, however, determined to fill this gap, and offer traumatized Syrian children a safe haven to play, heal, and access mental health resources. In 2014, the Amman-based pair created the Happiness Again, a project run by their non-profit organization, Hamzet Wasel for Social Development. The center provides psychological and social support to children aged six and up, through a twelve-week program that incorporates art therapy, music therapy, play therapy, psychodrama, and more.

A young participant of Happiness Again during a puppet show. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau

The program’s goal is to reignite the joy and enthusiasm so many young victims of the conflict have lost. This spirit shines through all aspects of the organization. The psychologists working on site have a calming energy and infectious enthusiasm. They kick off each of the two-and-a-half hour sessions with groups of twenty children by holding an open discussion, after which they lead an exercise and yoga session, designed to calm and help focus the children. This is followed by group activities, such as art therapy.  

Children at Happiness Again during a drawing activity. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau

Symptoms of trauma can often manifest in surprising ways. As Midani described to Muftah, traumatized children display a variety of behavioral tendencies, including selective mutism, high energy, and aggression. Many of the children in the program have lost parents, but are unable to talk about their loss, she said. Midani recalled an orphaned child who expressed his loss by burying two figurines representing his dead parents under the sand. 

At the end of each three-month rotation, the program holds a graduation ceremony for the children. For many, however, the healing process continues, particularly since depression and trauma are often part of their life at home. Midani described one child who experienced a PTSD relapse after his therapy finished, in large part because his parents were also struggling with depression.

In response to these circumstances, Midani and Atassi spearheaded the Women’s Project, offering Syrian mothers a twelve-week course incorporating psychosocial support, with workshops on craft-making. Crafts made by the women are sold, with the proceeds returning to them. 

Handicrafts created by the mothers of children attending the Happiness Again program. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau

The holistic approach embraced by Midan and Attasi’s programs allows both children and their parents to envision better futures. “At the beginning of their curriculum, the children can’t smile, or they display aggressive behavior. Once you care about them, once they feel secure and respected, they start to smile, and they want to play – they want to be like every other child in the world,” Midani said. “This is why we work so hard to sustain this place – we need to take care of their hearts and their minds.”

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