Aarsal, Lebanon -
Seven-year-old Marwan concentrates as he draws - blacks, reds and yellows filling the white sheet of paper.
But for this little boy, a refugee in Lebanon from the horrific violence engulfing his country next door, the picture is not one of the happy, carefree scenes that line school hallways around the world.
It is a memory of his border town of Qusayr in flames after it was bombed by President Bashar al-Assad's troops.
And he retains a mental picture which social workers at this refugee centre in the northern Lebanese town of Aarsal are doing their best to ensure won't torment him for the rest of his life.
“I saw how they murdered my father in front of me,” said Marwan, his eyes welling up with tears. Assad's soldiers “shot him when they attacked Qusayr.”
Lebanese Samir Ismail directs the centre in Aarsal, near the Syrian border, where he and his colleagues struggle to ensure that the more than 70 refugee children who come each day will be able to put their painful memories behind them.
Marwan is just like any other boy his age, smiling from ear to ear, a bundle of energy who never stops moving.
Then, without warning, “he will break into uncontrollable fits of crying; when you least expect it, he goes to pieces. It is terribly sad,” said Ismail.
Marwan, like many of the other children, has become an artist of war.
Noor Hussain is one of the social workers at the centre run by Terre des Hommes, a worldwide organisation dedicated to helping children that was founded in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“In their drawings, they pour out everything they have experienced and what they feel. Many of their drawings depict dead and wounded people, burnt out houses, tank shelling, fire,” said Hussain.
“When we ask them to draw the first thing that pops into their mind, it is always, always war.
“Most of these children have lost relatives, have seen people murdered, the bombing. They have lived through things that 80
percent of people only see on television.”
Like Marwan, she said, “we have children sitting quietly in class who burst out crying without any apparent reason.”
When this happens, Hussain said, “We take them out of the classroom and talk to them alone; we try to comfort them. Our work is very important, because the traumatic experiences they've suffered could affect the rest of their lives.”
The suffering is not just from what they've seen, but what they've left behind.
“Many of these children still have relatives back in Syria fighting with the (rebel) Syrian Free Army ... or their families are trapped in a city and unable to reach Lebanon to join them.”
Rayat is one of three teachers at the centre and refused to give her surname. She is Syrian and afraid.
She said “most of the children who come to us suffer from a severe case of post-traumatic stress. Many of them never stop weeping, or cut themselves off from their mates.”
Yuria, aged 12, carries her own horrible vision.
Her father, a painter in the central city of Homs, was hit in the shoulder by a piece of shrapnel during the bombing. Three days later, he decided to flee to Lebanon with his family.
Parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, cousins took to the road by night, when the shelling was less intense. Sixteen in all.
“We had to pass through a lot of checkpoints. At one of them they seized my grandfather, who had trouble walking. I saw the soldiers beat him to death,” said Yuria.
The trauma is also evident when the teachers ask the children to sing.
The uprising has “so conditioned them that, without exception, they come out with harangues against Assad or songs about the fall of the regime and the victory of the rebels,” Rayat said.
“When that happens, we get them to stop singing and look for another song. We are trying to get them to forget what they have experienced and seen.
“Our mission is for them to become completely normal children again.”
And part of that process, Ismail said, is to get the children ready to attend Lebanese schools in September so as not to lose out on their studies.
But he lamented the lack of support for the refugees from the Lebanese government, which is dominated by the Shi’a movement Hezbollah, a backer of the Assad regime.
An additional obstacle, is that many schools in Lebanon conduct classes in either French or English, languages these children do not have.
Despite the horrors, some of the children are homesick.
“I saw terrible things,” Yuria recalled. “But my home is in Syria. My friends are there, my grandparents.
“I don't like Lebanon; I want to go home. But I don't know if we will return one day, because there is fighting every day. People are still dying.”
Yet the centre's director does not despair.
“They are children, simple children who have seen terrible things,” Ismail said. “But now, many of them are able to have fun, laugh again and forget their problems.” - Sapa-AFP