03/01/2013 10:00 am ET

When Disaster Strikes: Youth Are Youth Against All Odds

"Providing an outlet for kids who have been through unimaginable, violent events and left everything they know behind is critical to helping them recover and just be kids." -- Rob Maroni, Mercy Corps Country Director, Jordan.

Six miles from the Jordan-Syria border there's a safe haven for more than 20,000 Syrians who have fled their homes. Though far from the fighting, the refugee camp is still a distressing place for children and youth who make up almost half of the population. One of the few escapes the children have is a local playground constructed by Mercy Corps last year. It is hard to miss -- just follow the unexpected sound of laughter and you will find swarms of kids swinging, sliding and playfully arguing over whose turn it is.

When disaster strikes, whether it is an earthquake, hurricane, tsunami or conflict, young survivors are particularly vulnerable. Mercy Corps has teamed up with partners Nike and Bright Horizons to develop post-crisis interventions that are designed to help youth and children build resilience, recover from trauma, and make healthy choices. The Comfort for Kids program works with local doctors, nurses, teachers, parents and child care workers so they're equipped to help children understand and communicate what they've been through. It also provides a safe space for children to play and just be children again. Moving Forward uses sports, games, and community projects to promote resilience, teamwork, self-esteem, and confidence for crisis-affected youth. In Haiti, 63 percent of our youth participants had increased scores in resiliency, self-worth, self-agency and social inclusion after the project.

For young Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and Jordan, the toll that the war has taken is extraordinary. Mercy Corps assessments with youth and children and have found that 71 percent have trouble sleeping, 54 percent live in constant fear that 'something bad is about to happen' and 43 percent feel disconnected from others. To address these issues, we aim to restore a sense of normalcy to their daily lives, decrease the distress youth suffer after disasters, and help create critical social networks where young people can turn to peers and caring adults for support. Not only do these efforts make an impact on young people in the short-term, initial research shows that by providing early interventions, youth do better throughout a transition and are able to benefit more from youth programs as they move from relief, to recovery, to development. For example, a Mercy Corps study deduced that Liberian youth were more likely to remember key lessons and finish training programs if there was an integrated sports component.

Too often, interventions that incorporate holistic support including trauma counseling, sports, leadership and play are viewed as luxuries in crisis settings where donors and their partners focus on immediate needs. However, after over 30 years of working in crisis and post-crisis environments, we have found that these types of programs erect a critical bridge from relief to development. They set the stage for young people to succeed in longer-term youth employment, education, and health programs. To address this gap, Mercy Corps now operates safe spaces for children in Yemen and Syrian refugee communities; provides sports-based programming in Haiti and the Central African Republic; and leads programs that help promote reintegration for former youth militants in Colombia. If young people, because of the horrific events they have seen, do not believe they have a future, why should they stay in school or save money to open a small business? If they have no self-esteem or resilience, how can they resist the negative behaviors -- drugs, prostitution, or militancy -- that all too often come in the wake of disaster? From the perspective of youth living in crisis settings, activities that help develop self-esteem, trust and a sense of community are not luxuries, but essential building blocks to a healthy, productive future.

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This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Alliance for International Youth Development (AIYD) entitled "Beyond Emergency: How Conflict Impacts Global Youth." Posts will address issues facing global youth impacted by conflict, underscoring challenges including livelihoods among urban youth refugees and access to basic education in times of conflict, among others. For more information, click here.