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Refugee children face psychological trauma in Germany

Reem Dawa
May 23, 2017

The trauma of war doesn't end for refugee children when they reach a safe country. In Germany, the psychological effects of the war may influence their daily behavior and have a negative impact on their future.

Deutschland Flüchtlinge Kinder vor Flüchtlingsunterkunft
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Wüstneck

"My mother was unable to find a suitable way to deal with my brother, which hurts all of us," 18-year-old Laila (a pseudonym) said about her 10-year-old brother, Yasser. The Syrian family fled Damascus in search of safety and had to leave the country overnight. The reason was because Laila's father had received death threats.

"It was not easy for us to leave the country but we were forced to do so. My older brother and I came to accept this, but my younger brother couldn't at all," she said. Not only that, Yasser became aggressive and accused his family of keeping him away from "his friends and his country." Yasser's mother tried to help her son adjust to his new life in Germany, but to no avail. His mother became even more anxious when he stopped eating. "My mother became harsh with him and started beating him," Laila said.

Yasser is only one child among the hundreds in who arrived in Germany who suffer from psychological trauma. About 350,000 minors arrived in Germany from countries ravaged by the brutality of war and the bitterness of poverty according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Syrien Belagerung Stadt Douma
Many refugee children are still haunted by the war that they fled from - even in their new safe countryImage: DW/F. Abdullah

Yazen (a pseudonym) is another refugee child in Germany. For him, all he needs a large courtyard, a football, a piece of chocolate and a safe environment to live a happy childhood. Instead of carrying a school bag filled with books like the other children, he carries a small suitcase on his back. He fled to Germany with his uncle on a dangerous journey carrying the suitcase in order to escape the bloody events in his home country, Syria.

The death of one of his uncles in Syria was for Yazen the greatest psychological shock. He was also affected by what he saw : tanks, clashes and other images of a childhood interrupted by war. The bitter psychological impact still remained after arriving in Germany and his post traumatic stress disorder was marked by nightmares, fear, anxiety and a desire for isolation.   

Challenges of treatment

Refugee children who come to Germany without their parents reside in special centers for minors. The center provides them with a routine and cares for them. When a child has psychological issues, treatment is provided for them. The differences in culture and language however make it difficult to understand the suffering of the child and prescribe a cure.

It is therefore better to have a psychologist from the same linguistic and cultural background as the refugee child to facilitate the treatment process, Muammar Nakhala, a former psychologist at the AWO Charitable society, said. The society deals with refugees and their social status in the North Eastern German city of Neubrandenburg.

He told InfoMigrants that therapy sessions with the children rely on them sharing their experiences and discussing painful moments from the past. In this case a shared language between the psychologist and child plays a strong role. "The idea of psychotherapy in Arab societies is often seen as flawed or insane. There a barrier between the therapist and the child. It is necessary at first to gain the trust of the child. Since I belong to the same cultural background, I can better understand the suffering they are talking about and their way of thinking," Nakhala said.

Deutschland Flüchtlingskinder in Grundschule in Frankfurt an der Oder
Psychological trauma can keep refugee children from integrating and prevent them from learning in German schoolsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

The therapist explained that the type and intensity of the psychological disorder determines the method of treatment, whether it be individual or group therapy. In Yazen's case, it began with individual therapy as his separation from his parents was shock for him. However, the child's response to the treatment was very good and his psychological condition stabilized after four months, especially after his parents arrived in Germany from Syria.

Some charities and associations in Germany provide psychosocial support to refugees traumatized due to war. The Psychosocial Center for Refugees in Düsseldorf provides support to about 500 refugees from 50 countries annually, as well as receiving volunteers from doctors, psychologists and others to assist in therapeutic sessions.

Psychological trauma as an obstacle to integration

Ahmed (a pseudonym) is another refugee suffering from post traumatic stress disorder at the center. He didn't want to talk to anyone, he refused to go to school and expressed his rejection of the new society and everything in it. Ahmed's was often very aggressive and expressed extremist ideas. He described everything around him to be religiously forbidden and did not participate in any activities. He also experienced nightmares and sleep disorders for several months in a row.

According to the therapist, 16-year-old Ahmed's 16-year-old aggressiveness was due to the brutal practices he witnessed when he was in Raqqa, Syria, which is controlled by the "Islamic State" or "IS." The intensity of the situation required weekly individual and group therapy for Ahmed. He would talk about his experiences in the therapy or act out roles in influential events in his life. 

Nakhla stressed that these mental disorders negatively affect the child's future and ability to integrate. It affects how the children make friends and learn in their new community. Parents should consult with the therapist when noting any of the symptoms mentioned in their children.

Ahmed gradually improved during the therapy treatment. Six months after the start of the sessions, his behavior changed completely. He became more open to others and was able to make friends, participate in activities and holidays and even swim with his friends. The nightmares and aggressive behavior disappeared. "During the therapy sessions, negative thoughts are replaced with positive ones," Nakhala concluded.  

Record number of lone refugee children crossed borders

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