03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Simple Pleasures and Long-term Care for Iraqi Refugees in Syria

I noticed her the moment I walked into our health clinic on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria. Eleven-year-old "Fatma," so pretty, but pale and reed-thin, her hair pulled back in a barrette, rings under her downcast eyes. I can only imagine what horrors have unfolded before her eyes.
Fatma is one of a dozen children gathered with their mothers at the activities center International Medical Corps operates for Iraqi refugees. They all have witnessed the killings of parents, siblings, neighbors, friends. They all fled the violence of Iraq for the safety of Damascus and its suburbs.

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The numbers of refugees here are disputed, but estimates range from several hundred thousand, to 1.3 million. Many of them arrived with little or no money, and little or no support system. Their medical and mental health needs are enormous. And the population influx has put a huge strain on the country's health infrastructure. Damascus, like any large city, has noticeable wealth - as well as deep pockets of poverty and need.

International Medical Corps was the first American humanitarian organization allowed to operate in Syria, providing primary and secondary health care, mental health services, maternal/child health care, and dental care to refugees and vulnerable members of the host population.

As I sit on the floor while her mother recounts their story, Fatma occasionally gazes up at me sheepishly. Her expressions reveal only profound sadness. Her 5-year-old sister, clutching a red-haired doll she made at the center, vies for my camera's attention.

Fatma's mother says when they lived in Baghdad, her husband received repeated sectarian death threats. At one point Fatma was abducted, though she managed to escape. Then their house was bombed and Fatma suffered shrapnel wounds to the back of her head. That's when the family fled to Syria, about six months earlier. She says Fatma is traumatized and rarely speaks. She missed two years of school and cannot focus in class, her grades have plummeted from what they once were. She shows me Fatma's report card, taped back together after Fatma had ripped it in anger and shame.

Our psychosocial coordinator at the center is working with Fatma and her family to address their complex issues and get them more intensive medical and psychiatric treatment. Fatma is showing some improvement, though she will take a very long time to more fully heal.

I am amazed to see the enormous impact even the most simple, innovative measures can have.
At another center, situated in a run-down neighborhood on the opposite side of Damascus, International Medical Corps and our partners at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are focusing on early childhood development for Iraqis and local children. Our staff and the kids together painted the walls of the center bright colors and planted a beautiful garden. We provide computer classes, plenty of children's books and a mini-jungle gym, all in a bright, lively setting. Nadia, our program coordinator, is the creative force behind the center. She placed colorful "wish boxes" in one room, where children can submit a simple request for us to fulfill on "Fun Fridays". Some of their wishes: to ride a horse, to eat a salad, to receive a pair of shoes. For these children - many of whom have lost parents - this center is a little slice of paradise they helped create.

All of the kids I met at this facility have witnessed unimaginable horrors, yet they are able to laugh and play like they haven't a care in the world. Nadia tells me one of the children's mothers remarked with astonishment: "What did you do? My child had stopped laughing. Now he is happy and smiling again."