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Syria: Reaching out to children and parents of war

An exhibition brought together psychologists from the University of Manchester with humanitarian workers to shed light on the plight of refugee families in Turkey, Syria and the UK, and help them cope with their traumatic experiences.

Drawing by Syrian child refugee, The University of ManchesterThe exhibition, which was funded by a Wellcome Trust ISSF Public Engagement Grant, was part of a wider project being carried out by the University of Manchester research team to help build parenting strategies to enhance mental health among families affected by the war.

The event, at Z-arts, Hulme, Manchester, in June 2015, featured drawings and activities for children and adults such as Arabic calligraphy as well as traditional music. It also showcased a film made with parents who have fled Syria about their parenting journey from before the conflict, during the conflict to now in the UK.

The event was put together with the help of Manchester's Syrian community. Children attending the event with their families had the chance to draw and paint pictures and write letters and send them to children displaced by the Syrian conflict.

Dr Kim Cartwright from the University of Manchester, helped to put the event together.  She said: "The children we work with in Turkey and across the border in Syria are often deeply traumatised. Their parents and caregivers play a key role in protecting them from psychological distress, but parenting in such extraordinarily challenging circumstances is extremely difficult and stressful."

"This exhibition is about helping others to understand the ways in which children and parents are experiencing the Syrian conflict and highlighting the urgent need for interventions that support parents in looking after themselves and their children to improve their mental wellbeing and chances for a better future."

The event featured the launch of a film and a crowd-funding campaign, money from which has been used to continue to reach families living through the Syrian conflict with parenting support and evaluate the benefit it provides families.

Professor Rachel Calam, who leads the Parenting and Families Research Group at the University said: "We need to work on different ways of making families aware of the best ways of helping their children through the enormous changes they experience."

This exhibition is about helping others to understand the ways in which children and parents are experiencing the Syrian conflict and highlighting the urgent need for interventions that support parents in looking after themselves and their children to improve their mental wellbeing and chances for a better future.

Dr Kim Cartwright / The University of Manchester

Aala El-Khani, from The University of Manchester who is based in the UK and working on the research project with aid workers on the ground near the Turkish-Syria border, said: "The exhibition highlights the enormous challenges faced by those caring for children in the Syrian conflict, but also ways that we can help support parents to protect themselves and their children from further psychological distress."

"One mother told us, ‘They cry at night, they scream a lot while they are sleeping. They are very angry. They have so many unanswered questions that I do not know how to answer'."

"With more money and greater awareness that this event will bring, we can start to help more families with children in this terrible situation."

The organisers were joined by Rethink Rebuild, Syria Relief and Jasmine of Peace: Syria who all play an enormous role in a variety of ways to support people affected by the Syrian conflict.

Like in so many other conflicts, children are suffering the most in the Syrian conflict. Those looking after children play an essential role in protecting children from psychological distress in war.

Parenting is one of the most important and difficult things one can do and in the face of war and displacement keeping children safe and away from physical and psychological harm is extremely stressful and difficult.

Living in the harsh and challenging environment combined with being traumatised themselves from violence and loss often impacts on parents' and caregivers' ability to care as they would normally like to for children.

For most of us, this is simply unimaginable. The hardships of day to day life for families living through war is often forgotten about especially the psychological suffering endured. This exhibition aimed to take visitors on a journey through the Syrian conflict from the perspectives of children and parents who have had to face the terrifying and sad reality of living through this conflict.

Sadly, there is currently no solution in sight for the Syrian conflict and it may continue for years. The exhibition showed how parenting is experienced in this war, the challenges parents and caregivers face, the urgent need for parenting support and what we are doing to provide families with this support to reduce psychological distress and help build a positive future.

The exhibition was funded by the Wellcome Trust (105610/Z/14/Z).