How the Syrian Refugee Crisis Hits Home for Me

This year, I spent my Fourth of July in Cayce, South Carolina, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of my family’s resettlement in America. Along with my fifteen cousins, I eavesdropped as my parents, aunts, and uncles recounted stories—half in English, half in Vietnamese—about their evacuation from Vietnam in April 1975. My maternal grandmother was eight months pregnant when she, my grandfather, and their six other children (ranging from three to seventeen years old) fled on a naval ship. Despite the difficulties of leaving their home and venturing into an uncertain life, all seven of my grandmother’s children who relocated to the United States have received a college education, started families, and are thriving.

However, I recognize that my family’s story may not be characteristic of all refugee families. Just days after our celebration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that more than four million refugees had fled Syria, and an additional 7.6 million were displaced within the country—the largest refugee crisis in the world. Of the four million Syrian refugees who have left the country, more than two million are children. And more than 8,000 children have crossed Syria’s borders without their parents.

Syrian children are fleeing because they face civil unrest, forced labor, human trafficking, and recruitment into opposing forces as child soldiers, and exploitation if they stay. In addition, 2.6 million children are unable to continue their education because of the conflict. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), a fifth of Syrian schools are non-functioning, and refugee children have limited access to educational services in refugee camps or neighboring countries. Because Syrian refugees are fleeing in such great numbers, refugee camps in neighboring countries are overcrowded and under-resourced, resulting in substandard living conditions that lead to malnutrition, lack of sanitation and hygiene, and poverty. Many of these children experience anxiety, fear, bed-wetting, and nightmares shortly after they reach the next location.

According to the latest Social Policy Report from the Society for Research in Child Development on Children and Terrorism, these risk factors cumulatively threaten a child’s development. The Center for the Developing Child has termed this compounded risk “toxic stress,” defined as a “strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity, including physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship.” Research shows that children who experience toxic stress in their early years are at high risk for a variety of negative short-term and long-term outcomes.

In a review of the research, James Garbarino and his team at Loyola University Chicago reported that children who experience terrorism face high rates of family violence, divorce, depression, malnutrition, cognitive and academic impairment, memory impairment, hyperarousal, irritability, nightmares, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, and juvenile delinquency. Toxic stress during early childhood directly affects brain development and disrupts other organ systems, impacting a child’s physical and mental well-being. As adults, children who experience toxic stress during early childhood are also at higher risk of experiencing negative health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, asthma, and depression.

After the tragic attacks in Paris and Beirut, it is clear that none of us are immune to the effects of terrorism. Whether we’ve directly experienced terrorism or we’ve watched images of the attacks on media outlets, terrorism affects us. Most importantly, it affects those most vulnerable to negative impacts—children. Garbarino and his team showed that since the 1930’s, children have increasingly reported fears related to attacks on communities (e.g., nuclear or biological warfare). His team also found that children who see these images on the TV or hear about them through the radio still report sensitivity and fear toward violence.

What can be done to mitigate these harmful effects? What can we do to understand our world in this new culture of fear? How can we support affected children so that they have the same fortuitous outcomes that my family was able to achieve?

First, refugee children or children who have faced terrorism need the basics: food, water, and safe and hygienic shelter, as well as services such as medical attention, education, social and emotional counseling. Then, they need a permanent home with stable, compassionate caregivers so that they can have prolonged access to education and counseling. A look at resilience research shows that buffers to terrorism include maintaining a normal daily routine, finding a voice through political involvement, having an intrinsic religiosity, and being securely attached to psychologically available parents.

When my family landed in South Carolina, they were greeted by sponsors who provided food, clothes, an apartment, but most importantly, a sense that America would be their “new normal.” Even after forty years, my family has never forgotten the kindness and compassion of strangers who gave them a new home. To this day, my mother sends and receives letters each Christmas to and from her sponsors. Now, forty years later, I am paying it forward by contributing to relief organizations that welcome refugee families when they reach the U.S. It will take a lot of us working together to support refugee children. Actions, big and small, matter. We can conduct research to better understand the lives of refugee children and develop interventions that support these children. We can also act in small ways, too, by donating or volunteering or even simply raising awareness by talking about the issues. Every bit helps.