Living with uncertainty: Lesson two

We bring you the latest instalment of our series, Living with Uncertainty, which provides insights and practical ideas about a range of topics from a refugee perspective.

Lesson two focuses on the strategies that can help children deal with the anxiety of change, and has been written by Alessandra Morelli (UNHCR Representative, Niger) and Maya Ghazal, who shares her experiences as a child who lived through conflict in her hometown of Damascus.

In a crisis, children find themselves projected, catapulted, thrown into a new reality.

When I was in Croatia at the start of my career with UNHCR, I was confronted by 25,000 people all fleeing the conflict in Bosnia. Until a few days before, all these people had been living their routine life. And now that life was gone.

Whether it’s a war or this current pandemic, the impact of such a crisis reverberates through the whole family.

Parents are no longer able to go to work. Families have to live and manage in a small restricted space. Children who were playing and going to school suddenly find everything has changed.

That’s what happened to Maya Ghazal when the conflict in Syria came to her hometown of Damascus.

"Before the conflict, I was like any other child just living my life. Not thinking about things like whether we were going to survive tomorrow or not. We just lived our life. We took it for granted. We never really thought we would lose it one day."

All that changed when the war arrived. Just as it has changed for so many children with the arrival of coronavirus.

"Going to school wasn’t safe. We were in constant danger. If our parents left the house, we never knew if we would see them again. I was supposed to be a kid just having fun. The war ripped all that away."

When we deal with children affected by crisis, they are facing the same anxiety and uncertainty as their parents. They breathe that uncertainty and fear. That’s why at UNHCR we put mental health care at the centre of our response.

If you are sharing this current lockdown with children, there are some simple ways that you can do this too.

1. Establish new routines

UNHCR launched a campaign several years ago and found that routine is fantastic for restoring people’s sense of agency. And as most parents will tell you, routine is particularly important for children. So when that routine has been broken – whether by war, violence or, as now, by the coronavirus – creating a new structure, a new routine really will help children adapt.

Even in the face of war, Maya’s parents managed to create a kind of routine for her. And that made all the difference.

"My parents still made sure we went to school and got a good education and managed somehow to have a normal life even though it was really worrying."

If you are in isolation, what structure can you put on your children’s day to help create a safe, reassuring routine?

2. Make sure they are heard

In a world of uncertainty, children will be dealing with difficult new feelings. That’s why it’s so important to allow them to talk and to let them know that whatever they are feeling is normal and understandable.

This was such a valuable lesson for Maya too:

"You shouldn’t be shy of struggles you are going through. It’s ok to struggle. It’s ok not to feel ok. It’s ok to be sad and cry."

Let your children know that whatever they are feeling is ok and that they do not have to deal with it alone.

3. Children are resilient

There’s no doubt, times like this are tough for children. But if you are a parent or a guardian, I also want to reassure you. I have noticed an amazing resilience in children, in fact their capacity to adapt is often stronger than it is in adults.

Maya found this out for herself. Through adversity, she found an inner strength to draw on:

"We had to acclimatise because it was like, this is the situation and what can we do? We had to live. We cannot be in a panic situation all the time. We had to adapt and live and move on."

I think there is such wisdom in those words. If you are looking after children during this difficult time, remember that their lives and yours must carry on. Follow your loving instincts and together, you will be strong.

Yours in solidarity,

Alessandra Morelli
UNHCR Representative, Niger

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