Whenever Delal* recalls the horror of fleeing fighting in Iraq, the 12-year-old closes her eyes and imagines she and her family are in a green garden full of colourful roses.
She goes to this imaginary space to cope with the memories of the day she and her family escaped an attack on their village in the Sinjar Mountain. They trekked in sweltering heat for seven days with no food and drank from the cap of the only bottle of water they had. Sometimes they came upon fighters who shot at them.
Delal learned the technique of imagining her safe space through a mental health programme run by SOS Children’s Villages in a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Iraq.
“I saw the fighters in the mountains. Now when I see someone with a beard, I get afraid,” said Delal. “But in the [SOS Children’s Villages] centre, they explained to us that not all the people with beards are mean.”
Delal is one of 6,600 children who live in the IDP camp in Dohuk, in northern Iraq, where SOS Children’s Villages is the only organisation providing comprehensive mental health support for children and adults.
The programme, funded through the support of Janssen Europe, Middle East and Africa Fund (Johnson & Johnson Foundation), helps children and adults recognise, cope with and overcome trauma. In Iraq, where more than 3 million people have been internally displaced since 2014, the programme supports the Yazidi community displaced from Sinjar, as well as communities that fled from Mosul.
SOS staff use personal counselling and so-called Teaching Recovery Techniques (TRT) to show children and young people ways to cope and heal from their traumatic experiences.
Since its launch in September 2016, the programme has helped more than 1,500 children and 1,300 adults, as well as indirectly impacted nearly 150,000 other individuals.
The programme has been particularly successful because of the use and dedication of local counsellors who understand the cultural background of the people they serve.
Not all children and parents are at a stage where they are ready to confront the traumatising events they have experienced, says Guhdar Younis Omer, a psychosocial counsellor at SOS Children’s Villages.
“We sometimes face difficulties with parents who don’t tell us about their children’s unusual behaviours because they are afraid that they will be judged. In some traditional communities here, it is taboo to talk about psychological problems,” says Guhdar.
Delal and three of her cousins completed the Teaching Recovery Techniques session. They learned to express, recognise, and face their fears through a number of defence mechanism that they can use whenever they have sudden flashbacks of the traumatising events they experienced.
When they do not have school, the four cousins go to the Child Friendly Space that SOS Children’s Villages opened inside the camp. In this space, children can enjoy educational activities and play games designed by the team to complement the TRT sessions.
*The name of the child was changed to protect her privacy.