BEIRUT – "Rockets landed on our house and destroyed it totally; so many people were injured," says 9-year-old Issara. Her two brothers, 4-year-old Hussein and 5-year-old Mahmoud, listen carefully. So does Ola Attaya, 31, a psychologist heading a pilot project to help traumatized children.
In a bit, Ola gets up and gives Issara a hug. "It is okay, it is okay, you don’t have to be afraid now. You’re safe."
The two little boys have been mostly quiet since their family fled Ramieh, close to the border between Israel and Lebanon.
"As you can see, some of these children are not able to speak or communicate," Ola told IPS at the center for refugees at the Beirut American University. "We feel that we can help them by giving them a chance to play, and speak to us whenever they want."
Ola manages the project put together by volunteers and spread now across six schools turned refugee centers. Ola and her team are working with hundreds of children daily to help them out of the trauma of the bombing.
Her staff of 40 includes psychologists, teachers, animators, artists, and art students. They set up all sorts of activities with the children, like drawing, playing, theater, and reading, mostly in groups. And many children have recovered quickly enough.
"Early prevention is very important," Ola said. "If you do not deal with the trauma right away, it will grow more serious."
Her team encounters many symptoms of trauma among children: sleep disorders, nightmares, clinging to parents, difficulties in speaking, apathy, getting exceptionally animated, or developing headaches or stomach aches.
Nevertheless, at Ola’s center it looked like school as usual. One group of children sat drawing, another painting, and yet another writing. One group of 10 children sat listening to a teacher reading a fairy tale.
The children all sat on a cement floor, their eyes focused on the pictures in the book. A couple of boys ran around, getting up to pranks with some of the other children.
Most families at her center have come from the south, where children have seen bombings and people being killed and mutilated. And they have seen the trauma of their parents.
"Children are like sponges and absorb their parents’ anxieties and fears," Ola said. "So therefore it is essential to help the parents in parallel with the children."
Some volunteers help parents while others work with the groups of children. "Stories encourage children to draw and to write about their experiences and eventually talk about them," said Ola. "This is necessary for them to cope with their experiences."
But the children are seeing pictures also of destruction, and listening to stories of death.
Two girls around 12 or 13 stood looking at the photographs of two young men glued onto the rear window of a black car. "This is my brother," said one of them wearing a black headscarf. "He was killed by the Israelis a few days ago when they bombed our village. I loved him so much."
Ola and her team are preparing to take on more children as the Israeli army expands its ground offensive, and as air attacks draw nearer and nearer Beirut.
Some children are taking to new drawings. "They are making postcards that we want to send to Israeli children," said Ola.