A London-based Irish conflict analyst is directing a campaign to help refugee children in the war-torn Middle East.
Dr. Shelley Deane, who hails from Longford, is the director of Brehon Advisory, a non-profit geopolitical consultancy, which specialises in researching, mediating and analysing conflict in the Middle East.
The London-based organisation provides insight and advice to parties who are navigating unpredictable political environments; considering current events, their primary focus is now firmly set on the Middle East and Africa.
Their insight comes from comprehensive ‘on-the-ground’ research with people who live and work in vulnerable cross-border conflict-affected areas.
Brehon Advisory is working on their own initiative to help assist refugees, the people most affected by the very conflicts they research. Brehon have produced and printed bilingual Arabic / English illustrated children’s books to help children dislocated and traumatised by five years of war; a war with no end in sight.
Children under 17 years of age now constitute half of the Syrian refugee population in Lebanon and neighbouring Jordan.
Dr. Deane notes that education is the most important way of ensuring that these children’s lives are not negatively impacted in the long-term.
“Education is vital to preventing long-term security issues emerging and evolving in the region. The refugees escaping Syria are young and vulnerable. The older children were uprooted from home and, for the younger children, conflict and insecurity is all they have known,” she says.
“The reason why the refugee population is so young is because in war situations the men often remain in the conflict zone to work or fight, and the women and children seek refuge and safety away from the conflict.”
“Some refugee children are lucky and get to go to school, only to find they are in an education system where they are alienated due to language barriers. In Lebanon, for example, schools teach in Arabic, and French or English. Syrian children may only speak Arabic, but classes in Maths and Science tend to be taught in either French or English, so refugees are immediately at a disadvantage.”
“But, for many children, and for boys in particular, the opportunity to work, even for a dollar a day, takes priority; when families are desperate to feed and support themselves, education becomes a luxury refugees can ill afford. A boy of 7 or 10 years old ends up doing manual work in a mechanics shop or in the fields. In this environment, the paltry sum of a dollar a day is hard to turn down, and school takes a back seat.”
“When that child becomes a bit older and is unwilling to work for the same sum, the people paying him will employ his younger brother.
By then, the young boy has forgotten any elementary education he may have had, and will almost certainly not return to education, subsequently creating a generation of boys ripe for radicalisation rather than education.”
In order to bridge the gap in formal education, Brehon has delivered 22,000 of these bilingual books to refugee children. The project was funded in part by Dubai Duty Free Foundation, and co-funded by Brehon Advisory and Asala Publishers.
“The bilingual books are welcomed because they bridge the education gap, promoting literacy and introducing new language skills. We provide trauma teddies with the books to help children process the anxieties and fears associated with war and dislocation. We have multiple requests from people and refugee organisations asking us for more books and we’d love to be able to deliver books and teddies to everyone, and in order to meet the demand we need to be able to expand the programme.”
To that end, Brehon Advisory have launched a crowd funding campaign on Indiegogo to allow them to print more books and help more refugees and vulnerable children.
As well as helping children with literacy and language skills, the books are designed to help them understand and process the trauma of the conflict happening around them.
“When we first started working with these children we gave them paper and colouring materials. One of the first things children who live in safety will draw is a picture of their family unit, and the refugee children did that too. But in addition to their families the children sketched lifelike aircraft dropping barrel bombs, unprompted and all from memory. Barrel bombing was, and remains, a feature of everyday life for children in Syria.”
The books address the fears and anxieties associated with living through war and conflict. There are two different books produced for different age groups and trauma teddies are given with the books to the younger children.
“The books help children who are suffering through war. The books build resilience in children, give them hope, and help them to process the events around them. There are currently two books. The first book tells the tale of Salem, a little boy who becomes a refugee and suffers from nightmares. Salem learns to deal with his nightmares, and, with the help of a child counsellor and a trauma teddy, he conquers his fears and views the world differently as a result. The second book tells the tale of sheep and goats living together in a pasture before a war that separates them. The animals worry about their friends and the war, and eventually they are reunited when the war ends, and they return to a happy life in the pasture together.”
The books give the children the psychological tools to process the worries and fears associated with war. The trauma teddies help to soothe separation anxieties and lessen trauma in children.
“Child psychologists have found that children identify with circles. Children associate circles with the sun, and use circles to organize their world, so we knit trauma teddies with round eyes and smiles.”
The crowd-funding Indiegogo page appeals to people who are either time rich or time poor.
“You can knit traumateddies for us – if you are time rich. You can donate money to fund more books – if you are time poor.”
The books can stand alone in either Arabic and English. Both books were first written in Arabic by a professor of child psychology, with illustrations created by Arab illustrators. The books were then translated into English and edited by English language professors before being distributed. The trauma teddies are created by volunteers in women’s knitting groups across the UK and Ireland. The books are given directly to the children, introduced by a local Arab story-teller, who Dr. Deane says is like an ‘old Irish Seanchai’.
“The story-teller helps everyone embrace the books. The children are introduced to the themes and the context of the books and get a sense of what reading in two languages is all about; they can relate to the stories of war and separation, the tales resonate with them.
“We hand a book to every child, none of the books are left to gather dust. Teachers and volunteers are given their own copies too. The project is more than the sum of its parts. We don’t just deliver books – we build relationships.
“In one informal school we visited a volunteer teacher was skeptical at first, because so many charities arrive and disappear with their promises unfulfilled. When the storyteller was finished and the children had their books and had volunteered to read them in front of the whole class, she was delighted. She said, ‘I thought you were going to be like the other organisations who just show up, cause a fuss, and leave, never to be seen again’. That’s why we build relationships with educators and volunteers working with refugees, because consistent bridge building and support is so important.”
Dr. Deane hopes the scheme can soon be implemented in other countries, and explains that the money Brehon Advisory makes from its research goes to supporting the education programmes and the cost of the books.
She also stresses that there is no discrimination; both refugee children and host community children receive books, to further assist in building bridges between the host and refugee communities.
“The hope is that one day no matter where Syrian refugee children may have sought refuge from war, they all had the same books to help them through their stress”.
One of her fondest memories is seeing first-hand the immediate impact the books had on one particular child, reaffirming that the project works and makes a difference.
“After one storytelling session with the story-teller, one child was able to get up and read the story himself in English, in front of his classmates, much to the shock of his teachers – who told us that he was one of the children that had been finding school difficult and had not spoken in class before, much less volunteered to read, and in English.”
The bilingual books are unique. While there are wonderful children’s book publishers across the region, particularly in Lebanon and Egypt, some Arabic language books tend to peddle a particular agenda to impressionable children.
“These books look like the average children’s book. They are well produced, but inexpensive and the story and illustrations seem like any other, at first, but when you flick through a few pages they are quite sinister,” she says.
“Some of these books have quite graphic illustrations depicting young children tending to their dead grandmother, killed by a bomb sent by the unnamed enemy.”
“These books are horrible, with illustrations of blood and death created to influence the child reader.”
In contrast, the books Brehon produces with Asala Publishers provide children with the tools to help them work through their existing fears, and help them build on their literacy and language capacities. The books counter the trauma of war and help support child readers as they try to understand their world. Dr. Deane ensures that Brehon Advisory remains in control of the distribution and printing of the books.
“With Asala Publishers, we print and distribute the books and deliver them with the trauma teddies to places others don’t reach. We listen to what the children, and their teachers and refugee volunteers need and want, and we do our utmost to bridge the gaps, and meet their immediate education needs. In the words of Seamus Heaney, ‘if the hopes you started out with have been dashed, hope has to be maintained’. ”
To see how you can help, visit the crowd-funding page Indiegogo: Trauma Teddies and Bilingual Books for Refugee Children.