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← What it's like to be a parent in a war zone

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Showing Revision 9 created 02/10/2017 by Brian Greene.

  1. Worldwide, over 1.5 billion people
    experience armed conflict.
  2. In response, people are forced
    to flee their country,
  3. leaving over 15 million refugees.
  4. Children, without a doubt,
  5. are the most innocent
    and vulnerable victims ...
  6. but not just from
    the obvious physical dangers,
  7. but from the often unspoken effects
    that wars have on their families.
  8. The experiences of war
    leave children at a real high risk
  9. for the development
    of emotional and behavioral problems.
  10. Children, as we can only imagine,
  11. will feel worried, threatened and at risk.
  12. But there is good news.
  13. The quality of care
    that children receive in their families
  14. can have a more significant
    effect on their well-being
  15. than from the actual experiences of war
    that they have been exposed to.
  16. So actually, children can be protected
  17. by warm, secure parenting
    during and after conflict.
  18. In 2011, I was a first-year PhD student

  19. in the University of Manchester
    School of Psychological Sciences.
  20. Like many of you here,
  21. I watched the crisis in Syria
    unfold in front of me on the TV.
  22. My family is originally from Syria,
  23. and very early on,
  24. I lost several family members
    in really horrifying ways.
  25. I'd sit and I'd gather with my family
    and watch the TV.
  26. We've all seen those scenes:
  27. bombs destroying buildings,
  28. chaos, destruction
  29. and people screaming and running.
  30. It was always the people screaming
    and running that really got me the most,
  31. especially those
    terrified-looking children.
  32. I was a mother to two young,
    typically inquisitive children.
  33. They were five and six then,
  34. at an age where they typically
    asked lots and lots of questions,
  35. and expected real, convincing answers.
  36. So, I began to wonder
    what it might be like
  37. to parent my children
    in a war zone and a refugee camp.
  38. Would my children change?
  39. Would my daughter's bright,
    happy eyes lose their shine?
  40. Would my son's really relaxed and carefree
    nature become fearful and withdrawn?
  41. How would I cope?
  42. Would I change?
  43. As psychologists and parent trainers,

  44. we know that arming parents
    with skills in caring for their children
  45. can have a huge effect
    on their well-being,
  46. and we call this parent training.
  47. The question I had was,
  48. could parent training programs
    be useful for families
  49. while they were still in war zones
    or refugee camps?
  50. Could we reach them
    with advice or training
  51. that would help them
    through these struggles?
  52. So I approached my PhD supervisor,
  53. Professor Rachel Calam,
  54. with the idea of using my academic skills
    to make some change in the real world.
  55. I wasn't quite sure
    what exactly I wanted to do.
  56. She listened carefully and patiently,
  57. and then to my joy she said,
  58. "If that's what you want to do,
    and it means so much to you,
  59. then let's do it.
  60. Let's find ways to see if parent programs
  61. can be useful for families
    in these contexts."
  62. So for the past five years,
    myself and my colleagues --

  63. Prof. Calam and Dr. Kim Cartwright --
  64. have been working
    on ways to support families
  65. that have experienced
    war and displacement.
  66. Now, to know how to help families
    that have been through conflict
  67. support their children,
  68. the first step must obviously be
    to ask them what they're struggling with,
  69. right?
  70. I mean, it seems obvious.
  71. But it's often those
    that are the most vulnerable,
  72. that we're trying to support,
  73. that we actually don't ask.
  74. How many times have we just assumed
    we know exactly the right thing
  75. that's going to help someone or something
    without actually asking them first?
  76. So I travelled to refugee camps
    in Syria and in Turkey,

  77. and I sat with families, and I listened.
  78. I listened to their parenting challenges,
  79. I listened to their parenting struggles
  80. and I listened to their call for help.
  81. And sometimes that was just paused,
  82. as all I could do was hold hands with them
  83. and just join them
    in silent crying and prayer.
  84. They told me about their struggles,
  85. they told me about the rough,
    harsh refugee camp conditions
  86. that made it hard to focus
    on anything but practical chores
  87. like collecting clean water.
  88. They told me how they watched
    their children withdraw;
  89. the sadness, depression, anger,
  90. bed-wetting, thumb-sucking,
    fear of loud noises,
  91. fear of nightmares --
  92. terrifying, terrifying nightmares.
  93. These families had been through
    what we had been watching on the TV.
  94. The mothers --
  95. almost half of them
    were now widows of war,
  96. or didn't even know
    if their husbands were dead or alive --
  97. described how they felt
    they were coping so badly.
  98. They watched their children change
    and they had no idea how to help them.
  99. They didn't know how to answer
    their children's questions.
  100. What I found incredibly astonishing
    and so motivational

  101. was that these families were
    so motivated to support their children.
  102. Despite all these challenges they faced,
  103. they were trying to help their children.
  104. They were making attempts
    at seeking support from NGO workers,
  105. from refugee camp teachers,
  106. professional medics,
  107. other parents.
  108. One mother I met had only been
    in a camp for four days,
  109. and had already made two attempts
  110. at seeking support
    for her eight-year-old daughter
  111. who was having terrifying nightmares.
  112. But sadly, these attempts
    are almost always useless.
  113. Refugee camp doctors, when available,
  114. are almost always too busy,
  115. or don't have the knowledge or the time
    for basic parenting supports.
  116. Refugee camp teachers and other parents
    are just like them --
  117. part of a new refugee community
    who's struggling with new needs.
  118. So then we began to think.

  119. How could we help these families?
  120. The families were struggling with things
    much bigger than they could cope with.
  121. The Syrian crisis made it clear
  122. how incredibly impossible it would be
    to reach families on an individual level.
  123. How else could we help them?
  124. How would we reach families
    at a population level
  125. and low costs
  126. in these terrifying, terrifying times?
  127. After hours of speaking to NGO workers,

  128. one suggested a fantastic innovative idea
  129. of distributing parenting
    information leaflets via bread wrappers --
  130. bread wrappers that were being delivered
    to families in a conflict zone in Syria
  131. by humanitarian workers.
  132. So that's what we did.
  133. The bread wrappers haven't changed
    at all in their appearance,
  134. except for the addition
    of two pieces of paper.
  135. One was a parenting information leaflet
    that had basic advice and information
  136. that normalized to the parent
    what they might be experiencing,
  137. and what their child
    might be experiencing.
  138. And information on how they could
    support themselves and their children,
  139. such as information like spending
    time talking to your child,
  140. showing them more affection,
  141. being more patient with your child,
  142. talking to your children.
  143. The other piece of paper
    was a feedback questionnaire,
  144. and of course, there was a pen.
  145. So is this simply leaflet distribution,
  146. or is this actually a possible means
    of delivering psychological first aid
  147. that provides warm,
    secure, loving parenting?
  148. We managed to distribute
    3,000 of these in just one week.

  149. What was incredible was
    we had a 60 percent response rate.
  150. 60 percent of the 3,000
    families responded.
  151. I don't know how many
    researchers we have here today,
  152. but that kind of response
    rate is fantastic.
  153. To have that in Manchester
    would be a huge achievement,
  154. let alone in a conflict zone in Syria --
  155. really highlighting how important
    these kinds of messages were to families.
  156. I remember how excited and eager we were
    for the return of the questionnaires.
  157. The families had left
    hundreds of messages --
  158. most incredibly positive and encouraging.
  159. But my favorite has got to be,
  160. "Thank you for not forgetting
    about us and our children."
  161. This really illustrates
    the potential means
  162. of the delivery of psychological
    first aid to families,
  163. and the return of feedback, too.
  164. Just imagine replicating this
    using other means
  165. such as baby milk distribution,
    or female hygiene kits,
  166. or even food baskets.
  167. But let's bring this closer to home,

  168. because the refugee crisis
  169. is one that is having an effect
    on every single one of us.
  170. We're bombarded with images daily
    of statistics and of photos,
  171. and that's not surprising,
  172. because by last month,
  173. over one million refugees
    had reached Europe.
  174. One million.
  175. Refugees are joining our communities,
  176. they're becoming our neighbors,
  177. their children are attending
    our children's schools.
  178. So we've adapted the leaflet
    to meet the needs of European refugees,
  179. and we have them online, open-access,
  180. in areas with a really high
    refugee influx.
  181. For example, the Swedish healthcare
    uploaded it onto their website,
  182. and within the first 45 minutes,
  183. it was downloaded 343 times --
  184. really highlighting how important it is
  185. for volunteers, practitioners
    and other parents
  186. to have open-access,
    psychological first-aid messages.
  187. In 2013, I was sitting on the cold,
    hard floor of a refugee camp tent

  188. with mothers sitting around me
    as I was conducting a focus group.
  189. Across from me stood an elderly lady
  190. with what seemed to be
    a 13-year-old girl lying beside her,
  191. with her head on the elderly lady's knees.
  192. The girl stayed quiet
    throughout the focus group,
  193. not talking at all,
  194. with her knees
    curled up against her chest.
  195. Towards the end of the focus group,
  196. and as I was thanking
    the mothers for their time,
  197. the elderly lady looked at me
    while pointing at the young girl,
  198. and said to me, "Can you help us with...?"
  199. Not quite sure what she expected me to do,
  200. I looked at the young girl and smiled,
  201. and in Arabic I said,
  202. "Salaam alaikum. Shu-ismak?"
  203. "What's your name?"
  204. She looked at me really
    confused and unengaged,
  205. but then said, "Halul."
  206. Halul is the pet's name
    for the Arabic female name, Hala,
  207. and is only really used
    to refer to really young girls.
  208. At that point I realized that actually
    Hala was probably much older than 13.
  209. It turns out Hala was a 25-year-old
    mother to three young children.
  210. Hala had been a confident,
    bright, bubbly, loving, caring mother
  211. to her children,
  212. but the war had changed all of that.
  213. She had lived through bombs
    being dropped in her town;
  214. she had lived through explosions.
  215. When fighter jets
    were flying around their building,
  216. dropping bombs,
  217. her children would be screaming,
    terrified from the noise.
  218. Hala would frantically grab pillows
    and cover her children's ears
  219. to block out the noise,
  220. all the while screaming herself.
  221. When they reached the refugee camp
  222. and she knew they were finally
    in some kind of safety,
  223. she completely withdrew
    to acting like her old childhood self.
  224. She completely rejected her family --
  225. her children, her husband.
  226. Hala simply could no longer cope.
  227. This is a parenting struggle
    with a really tough ending,

  228. but sadly, it's not uncommon.
  229. Those who experience
    armed conflict and displacement
  230. will face serious emotional struggles.
  231. And that's something we can all relate to.
  232. If you have been through
    a devastating time in your life,
  233. if you have lost someone
    or something you really care about,
  234. how would you continue to cope?
  235. Could you still be able
    to care for yourself and for your family?
  236. Given that the first years
    of a child's life are crucial

  237. for healthy physical
    and emotional development,
  238. and that 1.5 billion people
    are experiencing armed conflict --
  239. many of whom are now
    joining our communities --
  240. we cannot afford to turn a blind eye
  241. to the needs of those
    who are experiencing war and displacement.
  242. We must prioritize
    these families' needs --
  243. both those who are internally displaced,
    and those who are refugees worldwide.
  244. These needs must be prioritized
    by NGO workers, policy makers,
  245. the WHO, the UNHCR
    and every single one of us
  246. in whatever capacity it is
    that we function in our society.
  247. When we begin to recognize
    the individual faces of the conflict,

  248. when we begin to notice
    those intricate emotions on their faces,
  249. we begin to see them as humans, too.
  250. We begin to see
    the needs of these families,
  251. and these are the real human needs.
  252. When these family needs are prioritized,
  253. interventions for children
    in humanitarian settings
  254. will prioritize and recognize the primary
    role of the family in supporting children.
  255. Family mental health
    will be shouting loud and clear
  256. in global, international agenda.
  257. And children will be less likely
    to enter social service systems
  258. in resettlement countries
  259. because their families
    would have had support earlier on.
  260. And we will be more open-minded,
  261. more welcoming, more caring
  262. and more trusting to those
    who are joining our communities.
  263. We need to stop wars.

  264. We need to build a world where children
    can dream of planes dropping gifts,
  265. and not bombs.
  266. Until we stop armed conflicts
    raging throughout the world,
  267. families will continue to be displaced,
  268. leaving children vulnerable.
  269. But by improving parenting
    and caregiver support,
  270. it may be possible to weaken the links
    between war and psychological difficulties
  271. in children and their families.
  272. Thank you.

  273. (Applause)