Refugee Children Need Trauma-Informed Care, and Helping that Cause May be Easier Than You Think

The refugee situation in Greece is severe and troubling. Over 60,000 refugees and asylum seekers wait there at the moment, more or less trapped since the 2016 closing of the Balkan route that allowed a gateway to the rest of Europe. In a country with financial troubles of its own, it’s a gritty situation. Resources are scarce, refugee camps are overcrowded and inhumane, and there doesn’t seem to be any solutions in sight. Caught in the middle of this is an entire generation of children that have known nothing but this life of instability, uncertainty and fear.

Following the closure of the refugee camp where I had worked in France, I turned my attention towards Samos, Greece. A small island 2 miles off the coast of Turkey, the island has been receiving boats of primarily Syrian refugees for years, sometimes on a daily basis. In a camp intended to house 700, the population has at times surged up to 2,500. Humanitarian aid response to the crisis has been underwhelming, and the desperate refugees that have fled war and violence are then met with a gross lack of resources, including access to food and clean drinking water, medical and psychological care, and even sufficient shelter. Entire families in Greek refugee camps are often living in small pop-up tents that are easily flooded by rain and are regularly invaded by rats, which are thriving in the trash-filled overcrowded state of the camp. Adults spend entire days waiting in line to file asylum claims which take months to process, and some people have found themselves living in the camp for as long as two years awaiting an interview.

Despite the deplorable conditions and the eternal stress and exhaustion of their parents, the children somehow remain joyful. Every morning I would lead a stories and songs circle, and kids from all over camp would run there as fast as they could, buzzing at the chance to sing their favorite ABC song or choose their own book to look at. There’s something magical about those kids, something awe-provoking that in spite of the trauma that these children have experienced and the toxic stress that they are experiencing on a daily basis, a certain joie de vivre still remains that is truly unparalleled by children in our culture. On the other hand though, their anxiety is apparent and it seems to me that a lot of their energy is a result of hyperarousal as an effect of trauma, which is why it is so absolutely necessary that the services being provided for these children are trauma-informed. There are so many well-meaning volunteers in the refugee aid world that have little to no experience working with children, but given the tools and an adequate understanding of child development as it relates to psychosocial and trauma informed care, could be making a world of difference in the lives of thousands of children.

This brings us to now. I have been home for four months, and have embarked upon a mission to bring accessible training materials to volunteers working with refugee children in camp settings around the world. The skillset of the child life specialist is more applicable in this setting than any other that I know of and it is our duty to share it. CLDR currently has a task force looking at the best way to create and disseminate these materials, and would love any and all input. Feel free to reach out and get involved, we all have something valuable to give to help these children grow towards overcoming their trauma. Reach out to me at [email protected] if you’d like to get involved in any way!

Caralyn Perlee, Child Life Disaster Relief Director of International Relations

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