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One mission co-worker’s vision for ‘Strong Kids’

A play-based resiliency program helps young Iraqi and Syrian refugees living in Lebanon

by Scott Parker, Mission Connections | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Kids from Christian and Muslim backgrounds build rich friendships during the 12-week Strong Kids/Strong Emotions course. These bonds are an important part of combating racism in the region. (Photo by Scott Parker)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A few months ago, during our Strong Kids/Strong Emotions program for refugee kids, Hadil (not her actual name) was sitting across from me, stringing beads to make a bracelet.

The moment that she finished and began to tie the ends together, the string slipped and all the beads clattered to the floor. We exchanged looks of disappointment, but she tried again. On her second attempt, the string slipped and the beads fell once again, but Hadil tried again. She came close to breaking into tears, but she held it together.

When she finished the third string of beads and handed them to me to tie the ends, she raised her finger and gave me a huge grin, as if to say, “Okay, buddy, we’re not gonna screw this up a third time!”

A while later, a boy next to us accidentally let his string of beads clatter to the floor. Immediately, Hadil and I looked at each other, raised our fingers and broke into huge grins. The rest of the day (and the weeks to follow) this became our “thing” to joke and laugh about.

This moment was a micro-lesson in resilience, and I think it will continue to have ripples in Hadil’s life as she navigates the tough road of being from a displaced family.

Providing plenty of imaginative craft time not only allows refugee kids to exercise their minds, but it also creates the safe space needed to begin processing painful emotions and memories. (Photo by Scott Parker)

Strong Kids/Strong Emotions is a play-based trauma resiliency program for Iraqi and Syrian refugee kids living in Beirut. I started this program in 2017 in partnership with the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) for the purpose of helping children like Hadil use play in order to process and heal from the traumatic experience of being violently forced from their homes by extremist groups like ISIS. We use storytelling, games, puppetry and art to help the Strong Kids participants develop the skills that make up emotional intelligence: understanding one’s emotions (especially the painful ones), learning how to articulate and manage them, and figuring out how to be emotionally healthy in the midst of challenging circumstances.

As Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-workers, we are regularly encouraged to reflect on how our work connects with our denomination’s Matthew 25 invitation and vision of addressing systemic poverty, structural racism and congregational vitality. These three focal points keep me centered on what is most important and where we need to keep asking how we can make an even more substantial impact.

A 2011 article by the Urban Institute cites research making the connection between childhood trauma and systemic poverty, emphasizing that a child’s learning is dependent upon the healthy cognitive/social/emotional development which is under threat when the child suffers from untreated trauma. Many of the younger Strong Kids participants were likely not even born when their families fled extremist violence, but are experiencing the effects of generational trauma all the same. Each week, when I watch the kids become excited about some puzzle game they need to solve or use their imaginations to turn colored pipe cleaners into a unique masterpiece, I know that their minds are engaged in learning, that healing is slowly taking hold and that this will serve them well in creating a future for themselves.

Each Strong Kids course includes two assistant mentors in their early teens. These assistants develop leadership and mentoring skills as they themselves take part in exercises to develop their trauma resiliency. (Photo by Scott Parker)

Each Strong Kids course is 12 weeks and is made up of around 15 Iraqi and Syrian kids (ages 7–12), both Christian and Muslim. People are often surprised to learn that, for many regions in the Middle East, Christians and Muslims have lived together fruitfully for many generations. Friendships between members of each faith have been a normal thing. It has not been until war was introduced by an outside force that racial tensions and divisions became strong between religious communities. At Strong Kids, Christian and Muslim students make friendships and play together as naturally as they did before the war.

After each Strong Kids session, I regularly post pictures and a reflection on social media or my blog findaworld.org. Each time I do this, friends comment on how “normal” the people look. Kids are kids. Muslim moms dress more modestly, but they are regular moms. Refugees are in a very hard situation, but they are normal people. In this way, I attempt to challenge racism by showing the face of the Middle East, of Muslims, of refugees, and to tell their stories.

Using puppets to tell their stories helps make it easier for the Strong Kids to express both sorrow and joy in the midst of their circumstances. (Photo by Scott Parker)

One of the joys I experience from Strong Kids is how strongly it is supported by so many of our PC(USA) partner churches. Some support us financially, some with the occasional suitcase packed with craft supplies; many support us with prayer during their worship services, Sunday school, and Vacation Bible School. Each congregation supports Strong Kids with their own unique love language and each one uniquely participates in God’s mission on the other side of the world. As I talk with these partner churches about their involvement with Strong Kids, I am aware of the vitality. These churches hear the words “Iraq,” “Syria” and “Refugee” every day on the news, and they are choosing to do something about it. They are choosing to do something about a situation that matters deeply to the heart of God.

Scott Parker is associate for ecumenical partnerships and writer in residence with the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). In this role, he leads the council’s efforts in responding to children traumatized by unrest and war in Iraq and Syria who now seek refuge in Lebanon. Strong Kids, Strong Emotions has been helping build emotional and spiritual resilience in Iraqi and Syrian refugee children in the Beirut area through play-based activities since 2017. Elmarie Parker serves as regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

 


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