You Can’t Go Home Again

I have to declare a very strong interest. My husband’s play, Warehouse of Dreams, about the dilemmas of running a refugee camp, opens at a fringe theatre in London in November 2014. Being swept up in this event has led me to delve deeper into the topic of children damaged by war.

Every day, somewhere in the world, 30,000 people leave their homes to seek safety, and around 40% of the world’s 50 million refugees are children. They have lost their home, their schooling, perhaps their family, much that has been familiar, and are now displaced within their own country or are refugees in a foreign land. They may have witnessed appalling atrocities. They see their parents disempowered. Their past is destroyed, their future is unsettled and full of threats.

Then there are the child soldiers. The courage of cabin boys on warships is lauded in poetry and prose, and the Geneva convention allows children over the age of 15 to volunteer for non-combatant roles. Many did so with enthusiasm 100 years ago when going to war appeared preferable to the misery of living in poverty at home. What seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon is the abduction of children who are then drugged and brutalised into acting as front line soldiers or sexual slaves. Children are cheap, easy to manipulate and easy to dispose of when they have outlived their usefulness. It’s estimated that over 300,000 child soldiers are being used by both rebel and government armies in more than 30 countries, and the numbers are growing.

How do you begin to build a future for millions of youngsters who have been robbed of their childhood? In 1933 Albert Einstein was instrumental in founding what is now the International Relief Committee (IRC), one of the largest agencies working with refugees. Here in the UK, a small charity War Child is supporting Warehouse of Dreams because the play’s message is about enabling children in a refugee camp to have a future.

Children arrive in camps bewildered and afraid. What they need most is a safe and stable environment. But maybe not just like home. If soldiers have burst into your living room and bayonetted your father, a place that resembles home can be very frightening. Sirens and loud bangs may evoke memories of bombs and guns. A child may have peeped through a window to see where the nice music was coming from, and witnessed an execution. Many children are numb, frozen by their fears. Some are mute. Others swing between burying their emotions and exploding uncontrollably when the pressure builds up. They need help to reduce the intensity of the memories till these lose the power to overwhelm them.

Art is a powerful tool. Many children will start by drawing experiences too horrific to put into words. Children in Dafur drew the events they had seen so accurately that their pictures were submitted to the International Criminal Court as evidence against the Janjaweed. But gradually happier images creep into their pictures and into their lives.

We all know how valuable listening to music can be when we are stressed. For young people, pop music can be a great release. Playing music, and even more creating it in a group is, as anyone who sings in a choir knows, rewarding creatively and socially, and it requires both neuromuscular relaxation and control.

Children in Za'atari, the big refugee camp in Jordan, have help from War Child. Through 15 sessions, delivered by local volunteers, using drama, games and discussion as well as art and music, they gradually settle down, open up, and learn that there are adults they can trust. They benefit from a routine. They learn to play again. They learn life skills and regain the resilience and self-confidence they will need to cope with what is inevitably an uncertain future.

Former child soldiers have all the problems of displaced children, and more. Agencies like IRC undertake to reunite them with their families, and they sometimes succeed. Locating family members is just the beginning. These children may have been forced to kill, perhaps children they grew up with or even their own families. Girls’ honour has been besmirched. It takes time to persuade families to take them back. Exchanging letters and videotapes may help to pave the way, giving confidence to the children that they can be forgiven, and to the community that the children can reintegrate. Traditional cleansing rituals are an important part of the process.

Being forgiven by their family is one thing, forgiving themselves is another. Child soldiers have to learn to live not just with what they have seen, but what they have done. It takes years. Though it’s possible, even if you don’t have the luck to be adopted by Emma Thompson whose former child-soldier son Tindy is now a lawyer for UNHCR.

The aim for refugee children is to restart their interrupted education, and schools are a priority. But education for what? For a return home? Millions of refugee children will never go ‘home’. The world’s largest refugee camp is Dadaab in Kenya. There are now 10,000 Dadaab grandchildren – the children of children who were born in the camp. Organisations like War Child can equip some children for a future. The question is, how can the world give a future to 20 million refugee children?

Warehouse of Dreams opens at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town, London NW5 on 11th November 2014 and runs until 6th December.

Judith Harvey

Judith Harvey was a research scientist, ran the VSO programme in Papua New Guinea and taught in a Liverpool comprehensive school before going to medical school. She has been a partner, a salaried GP and a locum, an LMC chair and a long-time supporter NASGP. Her charity, Cuba Medical Link, enables medical students to go to Cuba for their electives.

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