THE BLOG
10/31/2016 04:12 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2017

In caring for Syrian children, long-term needs can't be overlooked

People worldwide were horrified at the sight of the small Syrian boy wiping blood and grime from his eyes as he was placed in an ambulance. This and subsequent tragic images of children pulled dead or barely alive from the rubble of bombed buildings illustrate the horror of war in places like Syria. These images also serve as a reminder of the potential damage to families and children that could far outlast the conflict.

At SOS Children's Villages in Syria, my colleagues have seen first-hand the devastating impact the Syrian crisis has had on children. And we know from experience that trauma is not something that can be captured in a 30-second viral video. It can last a lifetime. While an absolute priority in Syria today needs to be keeping children safe, we can't lose track of their long-term needs.

A child who suffers their first traumatic event before age 11 is three times more likely to develop psychological symptoms than a child or adult whose first trauma occurred later in life. One reason for this is that trauma can cause the part of a child's brain associated with memory to shrink. As a result, it can be difficult for childhood trauma survivors to develop new thoughts and memories.

Hundreds of children we have cared for in Syria have experienced traumatic events in their lives. Many are cursed with nightmares and flashbacks, which add to an ongoing sense of insecurity even when they are no longer in danger. Some of them may also regress on their developmental skills - they might, for example, go back to sucking their thumb or wetting the bed.

I recently spoke with international trauma specialist Paul Boyle about the future of children fleeing war-torn countries like Syria. He expressed that his main concern is how the trauma will impact the children in the future. "What will happen when they reach the country they will settle in?" he asked. "Will the trauma and nightmares follow them? If not treated, this may have long-term consequences."

This brings me to the small ray of hope in this dark situation.

If children are treated early enough and given immediate support after they escape danger, they can go on to live full lives. We see it every day among children in our care who have grown up to be healthy adults.

The recovery process begins once a child reaches safety and can enter what psychologists say is the make-or-break period. This is the time when children must come to terms with the horrors they have lived through. After experiencing such extreme circumstances, these child trauma survivors need supportive and effective caregiving.

Reaching a safe place in Syria continues to be difficult. Though we are trying. SOS Children's Villages operates safe spaces where children can receive the psychological support needed to work through their traumas. These are also places where children can participate in recreational activities and enjoy being children.

From our experience, we know that caring for the children of Syria requires more than just a hot meal and safe bed to recover from the horrors they have experienced. It is not a small task and requires long-term investment and care by professionals.

As we look ahead to a future Syria with peace, it's imperative that we as a country in our current and ongoing aid to this crisis, dedicate more funding to psychological care for children in disaster zones. The global need for this funding and care for children is immense. UNICEF recently reported that nearly 50 million children around the world have been uprooted from their homes due to conflict.

There is no better time than now to start making preparations to help these vulnerable survivors of conflict. For example, helping to rebuild the country's shattered schools and medical facilities will play a critical role in helping traumatized children.

With the power in the hands of our government, we urge members of Congress to get behind the need to support the safety and protection of Syria's children now and later. Americans have already invested military and political capital into trying to create a more stable future in Syria. The well-being of the country's children is key to how successful that investment is.