Australian donors have given generously to support Syrian refugees since UNHCR launched its Syria Crisis Appeal in 2011, donating over $16 million towards programs including emergency lifesaving relief within Syria and to support refugees in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. This ongoing commitment has helped alleviate suffering, but much more is needed to ensure the continued welfare of refugees.

Ten years of crisis has impacted the psychosocial health of Syrian children who have only known war. The sheer longevity of this conflict amounts to a new humanitarian disaster with millions of children out of school, traumatised and facing uncertain futures.

UNHCR Innovation Award recipient Imad Elabdala knows too well the lasting impacts of the crisis on mental health. Having fled persecution in Syria in 2013, Imad expected to rebuild a new life in Sweden drawing on his training as an engineer. However, the ongoing distress he suffered as a result of his experiences – which included two perilous journeys on a rubber boat – resulted in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that could not be ignored.

“I used to underestimate mental health issues. What I’ve learned from dealing with PTSD is that your mental health is key to everything,” said the 36-year-old engineer, speaking of the conflict that began 10 years ago.

While Imad overcame the worst of his diagnosis with professional help, he knew that millions of children without the mental capacity to process trauma would need help to do the same. Imad hit the road to spend time with children in refugee camps, working closely with mental health professionals to engineer just the tool.

Imad founded the not-for-profit organisation Hero2B in 2016, which brings storytelling and technology together to meet the mental health needs of refugee children, empowering them in the recovery process. With almost half of Syrian refugees under the age of 18, the need for this support cannot be overstated.

@UNHCR/B. Sokol

@UNHCR/Teeh Pictures [still]


Imad’s story, Sarah’s Journey, packaged crucial learnings for resilience into different formats that help children learn. This tool transformed Yara’s* life. The seven-year-old came to Sweden from Syria with her parents in 2015.

“We were so happy to reach safety. But our experience changed when we started living with the uncertainty of what the future will hold, and the effects of our experiences in the war and journey began to surface,” Yara’s mother, Amina*, explained. 

Yara developed a fear of water and started skipping swimming lessons. In addition, she was ashamed of her background as a refugee, which Amina said inhibited her development.

“Yara looks up to Sarah and started to tell friends at school that she had a role model who looked like her and was also a refugee,” Amina* said.

The fictional Sarah helped Yara face her fear of water, and she started attending swimming lessons. “The organisation’s books and films really helped Yara develop her self-esteem,” Amina said.

The focus on mental health and switch to digital methods attracted the attention of UNHCR, which established an annual Innovation Award in 2018 to encourage innovation among NGOs working with refugees. Imad will use US$15,000 of prize money to develop his organisation further.

The risk of missing out on critical access to psychosocial support in the long-term is social exclusion and marginalisation. With the continued commitment of Australian donors and former refugees, Syrians will have a better chance of overcoming trauma and accessing opportunities for the future.  


*Names changed for protection reasons.


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