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Photo Essay: Coping Skills and Trauma Therapy in Jordan

More than 80% of the almost 600,000 Syrians in Jordan live in urban areas outside of refugee camps. With no sign of the conflict ending, local and international NGOs are trying to help Syrians cope with daily life.

Written by Alice Su Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Here, nonprofit ARDD-Legal Aid shares a photo essay from one of their discussion sessions with a small group of refugees. They provide post-trauma coping skills and basic family counseling, in an attempt to give the families a semblance of normalcy.

ZARQA, Jordan – A party is being held on the third floor of a building behind a busy street in Zarqa, Jordan. Three girls, two boys, one baby and three mothers are gathered around a cake at the center of a plastic table, piled high with strawberries and crowned with one tall white candle. The baby is sleeping, boys are dueling with balloons, mothers are fussing over plates and forks as two of the girls hum Syrian songs to themselves. The third leans her elbows on the table, quiet, a mountain of strawberries reflected in her eyes.

The women are Syrians from Daraa and Damascus, now refugees and newfound neighbors. They came to Jordan about a year ago, first staying in the Zaatari camp and then leaving when the water started to make their children sick. Now they live in Zarqa, an industrial city 45 minutes out of Amman, getting by on UNHCR-issued food coupons and their husband’s informal salaries from clothing shops and Syrian ice cream stores.

This session is part of “Gift with a Message,” an initiative to first counsel and then empower participants to build psychological health in their communities. After a session on “Helping Children Cope” last week, Syrian parents brought toys back home for their sons and daughters. In a session on violence against women, husbands were given gifts to honor their wives.

Today’s topic is “Managing Stress in Couples,” specifically how marital roles change in the refugee context and how women can support their husbands and families nonetheless. The gift for each woman – and in extension, her family – is a strawberry cake.

“How did the war affect your relationship with your husband?” ARDD-Legal Aid psychotherapist Dr. Lina Darras begins the conversation. Twelve Syrian women are gathered in a circle of chairs around her. It’s 12 p.m., but the shades are drawn, with music playing and candles lighting the room. No daycare is available, so half the women have brought their children, breastfeeding infants and shushing toddlers who whine about needing the bathroom.

“There’s no work. Men need work to feel like men.”

“We are carrying so much now. We never feel secure.”

“I’m tired. But what Syrian isn’t?”

Talk is heavy, slow at first but then faster and lighter as the women share stories and thoughts. One woman complains that her husband has stopped using pet names for her. Another talks about how much more her husband used to laugh in Syria. A third describes what it was like to walk across the border, pregnant and afraid. Her four-month-old baby, born in Zarqa, blinks through long lashes at the circle. “Her name is Sham,” the mother says, speaking the Arabic name for Greater Syria as if she can taste it on her tongue.

Refugee life is a long, monotonous gray, many women say, with no reasons for celebration and less and less laughter at home. Most live under constant tension, braced for sorrow to strike at any second, whether in news of Syria crumbling, memory of lost loved ones or day-to-day strain of survival. The idea behind the cakes, Dr. Darras explains, is to fight against the gray. “The message is, ‘Have a happy day,’” Darras says. “Bring the whole family together for something special, even just for an afternoon.”

Psychosocial work with refugees is difficult, Darras says. The war is so big, the circle of women so small. Can a mountain of strawberries stand against children’s nightmares of bombs, soldiers breaking into one’s basement, the dirty water of Zaatari and surprise of becoming a refugee? Can group counseling really heal when one’s world is ripped so sharply apart?

“Sometimes you feel helpless,” Darras says. “But what do we do? Empower them. Give them hope. Help them look to the future and teach them to be strong – and do it in a community, so they know they are not alone.”

Back at home, the women have bought party hats. Everyone eats cake and takes pictures, mothers laughing at the whipped cream on their children’s faces. The women pull out their food coupons, valid for 12 Jordanian dinar per person every two weeks. “You can’t buy chocolate or ice cream with these,” one explains. “They’re extra. You only get the basics. Not much, but enough.”

She pauses, watching as the kids rub balloons on their hair and stick them to the wall, giggling at the static. “We have nothing in Zarqa,” she says, “Except for each other.” It’s not much. But in the moment, it’s enough.

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