UngKul - consultant for health survey of Syrian refugee children
400,000 refugees from Syria have managed to escape the war's horrifying drama and cross the border to neighbouring countries. Over 120,000 of these now live in refugee camps in Turkey. Approximately half are children under 18. Brit Oppedal, senior researcher and Principal Investigator of the UngKul Study (Youth, Culture and Competence study),participated as a consultant to an international project documenting the terrible events the children have been exposed to, and the health consequences of the war-related terror and traumas they have experienced.
In 2012, researchers at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, in collaboration with New York University, conducted a health survey in the Gaziantep Islahiye refugee camp. Over three hundred children between ages 9 and 18, but mostly in the age group 10 to 13 years, were interviewed at school by students from Bahcesehir University. Most of them had lived in the camp for over six months. The study clearly shows the overwhelming stresses and traumas of war that children are exposed to - and from which we unfortunately cannot protect them.
Gaziantep Islahiye refugee camp
Around 8400 refugees lived in Gaziantep refugee camp at the beginning of November. Most of these were Sunni Muslim refugees and half of them children. The vast majority have come from the capital Damascus, and Aleppo, which is closer to the border. Families are numerous, with an average of five children per family. Their lives have been given a sort of routine, guided mainly by the activities of the Turkish government and various NGO’s. The children play in the streets between the tents where laundry hangs to dry wherever there is a vacant airspace. Turkish authorities supply families with food in order to prevent sanitation problems and accidents with cooking appliances. The authorities are also providing the adults with job training activities, and schooling for the children. There are healthcare facilities in the camp, and the refugees are for the most part satisfied with these. Nevertheless, the study shows that:
- Only 4 % of the adults had received help for mental problems.
- 78 % responded that they had not received help for their mental health problems when they needed it.
- According to the parents, 3% of children were diagnosed with a mental illness after they had come to Gaziantep camp.
Three of four children have experienced deaths in their immediate family
To obtain information about the consequences war may have on children, the children were asked whether they had been exposed to eleven different adverse events associated with war and disasters. The results show that:
- 44% of the participating children had experienced five or more such serious events.
- Three out of four children had experienced a death in their immediate family, and two of three had been in a terrifying situation where they felt they were in great danger.
- One in three had experienced being hit, kicked or shot at, and two thirds had witnessed this happening to others.
- Half of the children reported that there had been dramatic changes in their family in the past year.
- One-third reported that they had experienced being separated from their parents against their will.
These figures are similar to the results of other studies, and there is unfortunately reason to believe that children in other camps in Turkey have similar experiences.
High prevalence of somatic pain and psychological distress
The children also reported a lot of pain in the body, head, stomach, back, arms and legs, and two of three reported that they had pain at least in one body part every day or several times a week. In addition to the physical pains, the children were also marked by great psychological distress, half of them most likely suffered from a depressive disorder, and one in three had severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A large proportion of the children suffered from both depression and post-traumatic stress. This indicates that there was little agreement between the proportion of children who had been diagnosed with mental disorders by healthcare professionals in the camp, and the proportion that most likely needed treatment according to the survey.
In addition to the interviews, the children were asked to draw a picture of themselves, a picture of war and one of peace. These drawings more clearly than words show how the gruesome war atrocities have influenced them. They pictured themselves with tears from their eyes, with blood on their body or with a weapon in their hand. Their drawings of war showed people who were shot in the street, tanks loaded with armed soldiers and fighters dropping bombs on residential areas. Many drawings showed a mother with a dead child, or her dead husband.
In 2012, the health survey and the results were recently presented during the conference "Global Approaches to Global Challenges", which New York University and Bahcesehir University arranged in Istanbul. Brit Oppedal was one of four participants in the panel that commented on the results. In her speech, she highlighted the serious consequences involuntary separation from parents can have on children's psychosocial adjustment and mental health, both during war but also in a long-term perspective. Furthermore, she emphasized the importance of implementing measures to support the parents in their efforts to take care of their children in a situation where they themselves are struggling with grief, loss and psychological distress.
– Such measures can help children adapt and cope in an extraordinarily demanding developmental context, and prevent serious mental health problems returning when life in the future hopefully normalizes, says Oppedal.
The results of the health survey and the Conference attracted great attention in the Turkish media - all the major TV channels and newspapers had interviewed the project’s Principal Investigators and reported on the results.
Readers who are interested in more results from the study, can read the Bahcesehir Study Report.