A Syrian's risky choice to help young Iraqis heal

Forbidden to help refugees, a Syrian state pyschiatrist put his job on the line to treat Iraqi children.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Just 8 years old, Noor fell victim to an all-too-common crime in Baghdad. Kidnapped from school, she was held for ransom – beaten, blindfolded, and locked in an empty room – for four days.

Her father raced to come up with the money, fearing she would be yet another casualty in the city's plague of abductions. A driver by occupation, he sold the family's car to give his tormenters what they wanted: $8,000 for his daughter's life.

Noor and her family fled Baghdad. But three years later she was still haunted by her memories. They joined some 1 million Iraqis now living in Syria – among them an untold number of children struggling to cope with the emotional wounds of war.

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For Noor, and many other Iraqi children like her, there appeared to be no place to turn until a Syrian psychiatrist, risking his job at a state institution, defied authorities and decided to help.

Dr. Naim isn't his real name. The Syrian psychiatrist says he is afraid of his Syrian state employers who refused to allow him to treat Iraqi children, even though he volunteered to do so on his own time.

In the same Christian neighborhood where Noor and her family lives is a small center run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

"The nuns would come and visit us and other Iraqi families at home," Noor's mother, Wafaa, says. "They told us about a program for children that was going to be held at the church."

It was there that Noor, a Christian, and the doctor, a Muslim, first met.

Naim had worked with the Sisters before, helping a handful of troubled Syrians whom the nuns had referred to him. But soon he saw the need for another kind of program.

"The nuns were seeing a lot of disturbed Iraqi children," he says, from his sparsely furnished office in central Damascus.

And so, after weeks of intense research on the Internet – and much encouragement from his physician wife – he devised a group-therapy program that incorporated games, puppet shows, and artwork. Every Saturday for seven months, the tiny chapel run by the Sisters was transformed into a clinic for 28 children, ranging in age from 7 to 14.

"I doubted myself at first. I was afraid that I couldn't help these kids, that I might open a wound that wouldn't heal," says Naim. "But circumstances can make you do extraordinary things."

All of the children had harrowing tales. Some had witnessed family members being killed or raped. Others, like Noor, were terrified of leaving their homes, for fear that they might be kidnapped. They'd come to the church, Naim says, but only after much persuasion and only because "they trusted the nuns."

"They'd cry, some would swear, they screamed," he says. "They'd tell me, 'Doctor, you don't understand, don't give us advice. You don't know. You didn't live it.' Some of them were unnaturally calm in the beginning."

The psychiatrist persevered, building a rapport with the children, making them feel safe and earning their trust. The Sunni, with cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a graying, neatly trimmed moustache, also had to overcome the sectarian suspicions of the children, most of whom were Christians.

"I was very touched that it didn't take them long to trust me – a Muslim – after what they'd seen and been through," he says.

"The Iraqi Muslims fear each other too much," he says, explaining his reason for working mainly with Christians. If he'd helped Sunnis, he says, he might be perceived as aiding only his own, while Shiites, he feared, might not get past his sectarian identity.

He created an Iraqi-Syrian dictionary to help the children understand the different northern Levantine dialect of Arabic spoken in Syria. Shared meals helped cement the bond between doctor and patients.

Naim's work was "heartwarming," says Sister Therese Msallam, a wiry woman with graying hair that peeks out from under her navy-blue habit. "The children started laughing. They made friends. They had self-confidence again."

The Sisters of the Good Shepherd are one of a handful of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) partnering with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Damascus to assist Iraqi refugees through vocational training, medical assistance, food handouts, and now, psychological therapy.

UNHCR is working with other UN agencies like UNICEF to establish a system to tackle the problem of psychologically wounded Iraqi refugees. The idea, according to Mai Barazi, UNHCR's assistant community services officer in Damascus, is to help NGOs identify, refer, and treat the most vulnerable.

"It's challenging in Syria because of a lack of NGOs – there are no international NGOs and limited local ones," Barazi says. "The country itself doesn't have an existing system for this."

Barazi said Naim's initiative was exemplary. "He had the will. This is how you should do things in Syria. The more you ask for partners or help, the more complicated it gets, and bureaucratic. A year can pass and nothing happens."

Naim is already refining his technique for the next group of 30 children he hopes to treat after Easter. He wants to get parents more involved in the therapy – to have them supervise drawing competitions, for example, and speak to their children about the tumultuous events that have uprooted them.

"The aim is to let the community help itself," he says.

Noor, meanwhile, appears to be well on the way to recovery. The friendly girl, who has warm dimples and a shy smile, is back at school, although she still insists that her mother walk her there and pick her up.

She credits Naim's sessions with helping her regain a semblance of normality. "He helped me empty my heart of my worries," she says. "He helped me forget a little of what I went through."

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