Can the Children Who Survive the Wars in Syria and Iraq Be Saved?

Psychologists and therapists are struggling to rescue the minds of children from the horrors they’ve experienced in the war zones.

02.18.16 5:01 AM ET

ZAKHO, Iraq — For a long time now, children have been the most pitiful and helpless victims of the savage wars raging in Iraq and Syria. They have been enlisted, indoctrinated, enslaved, raped, murdered, and turned into murderers by the so-called Islamic State; they have been killed by mortar shells and barrel bombs and chemical weapons by a Syrian regime that doesn’t care about “collateral damage.” And now, it appears, they are being targeted directly by Russian airstrikes, although of course the Russians deny that.

On Monday, UNICEF said it had received reports of children being killed and “scores evacuated” from a child and maternal hospital, and two schools attacked in the town of Azaz, Syria, where six children reportedly died. Médecins Sans Frontières reported seven dead and eight missing in an attack on a hospital in Syria’s Idlib province.

Meanwhile, in Iraq nearly 2 million children are in areas under siege or controlled by armed groups, where they are vulnerable to sexual violence, abduction, and forced recruitment, UNICEF told The Daily Beast. In addition, one in five schools in the country are no longer functioning because they’ve been destroyed, damaged, are being used for military purposes, or to house displaced families.

When the thunder of the bombs stops and the dust clears, what happens to the children who survive? There are many tragic examples among the refugees from violence who have fled to the Kurdish area of Iraq.

Naif wasn’t eating properly. He got angry or nervous if his family came too close. A small 11-year-old boy with curly brown hair, Naif is from a Yazidi community in northern Iraq.

“It is no use, no matter where you are it is no use,” he said as he turned away. Outside the temporary shelter, the ground was muddy and cold and in the distance the mountains were specked with snow. “He will do nothing,” said his grandmother, Shami, “because he lost everyone.”

Naif was born to a family of farmers and shepherds. They lived on the plain below Sinjar Mountain, close to the Syrian border. As a Yazidi he is a member of a religious group who have been persecuted erroneously as “devil worshipers” for centuries. ISIS labeled them infidels, marked for death or slavery.

In the summer of 2014, Naif’s family was bringing its sheep to the mountain. Naif’s uncle Ahmed was leading the way. Naif trailed behind with his father, uncles, and cousins. They had just arrived at a crossroads south of the mountain when ISIS approached.

“I hid under the blankets and heard shooting,” he said quietly. “I stayed calm and came out and saw everyone, my uncles, my father dead. They had been shot in the head. Then I went to the mountain alone.”

“Naif gets nervous because he saw the massacres and it scares him,” His grandmother said. “If we leave him alone he is calm.”

At the end of March, Naif traveled to Germany as part of a therapy program that has taken 1,100 female and child victims of ISIS for psychological care. In Iraq the health infrastructure is weak due to decades of war and there is no established culture of psychological therapy for trauma.

In Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital, The Daily Beast spoke with Jan Kizilhan, a German professor of psychology and psychotherapy, who leads the program’s therapy side dealing with many, many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. He described the case of a 9-year-old Yazidi girl now being treated in Germany.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!
By clicking "Subscribe," you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason

When he spoke to her she told him the ISIS fighter “took me away from my mother with my grandmother and the ISIS guy put a gun to my head, and said, ‘You have to open your eyes, if you close your eyes I will kill you,’ and I had to see how my grandfather was killed.” The girl was told that she was a woman and then sold eight times and raped many times over a period of eight months.

When she arrived in Germany, the girl had nightmares every day. “She couldn’t sleep,” said Kizilhan. “If she heard a noise from a car she felt fear and thought ISIS was coming again and would take her away from her mother. After that we found her mother and brought her to Germany, too.”

It is worth noting that ISIS in Syria and Iraq is still holding over 3,000 Yazidi women and girls in captivity.

In addition to the Yazidis, other Iraqi patients, including Christians and Turkmen, are being treated in Germany. They often feel they are reliving the trauma, and suffer from panic attacks, psychosomatic symptoms, and sexual problems.

“Before the PTSD they could laugh, there was a future, and [the women] could trust men and the world,” said Kizilhan. “If you go out on the street you don’t expect someone will kill you. After this trauma everything changed, they don’t trust the world because the world didn’t save them—even their parents were not able to save them.” As a result, some children lose trust in their parents because they didn’t protect them from ISIS.

The program has been criticized locally for being too expensive and for taking women and girls away from Iraq. But without fast intervention, many of the survivors would have tried to kill themselves, or turned to prostitution, said Kizilhan. The program is run by the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The projected total cost is €95 million ($106 million), according to a local government official.

Kizilhan said that for children like Naif there is hope, because children tend to respond more quickly to treatment. Even the 9-year-old rape survivor recovering in Germany gave him some grounds for optimism:

“She is a child but she still has expectations, a future,” he said. “She wants to learn German, she wants a life; she wants to survive. This gives me real motivation. I can feel how strong even this child is. She wants to survive and that gives me hope that yes, there is trauma, but you can overcome this trauma.”