Syrian War Looms over Children’s Playtime

Conflict at Home Takes a Toll on Little Ones’ Mental Health
Syrian children play on a street with plastic toy guns in a rebel-held district of the northern city of Aleppo on July 6, 2016 during celebrations for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (AMEER ALHALBI/AFP/Getty Images)

The Syrian war has largely influenced the country’s population including children, most of whom have started to prefer war games that incite fighting and violence. The military operations that those children watched on TV and witnessed with their families who were living in areas close to armed confrontations have provided them with vast imagination to mimic the adults’ war in their playtime.

In the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, Majalla’s reporter saw a group of children in the Kurdish-majority neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud imitating troops of People's Defense Units, which is one of the most prominent Syrian Kurdish armed groups that constitute the alliance of Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS.

The children used plastic guns and knives, which suggests that other toys such as dolls and football are no longer interesting for them due to the influence of the current situation in the country.

There were no security checkpoints in Syria before the outbreak of war. They only emerged after the onset of armed clashes between forces of the Syrian regime on the one hand and the opposition on the other hand, and between Kurdish armed forces on the one hand and extremist groups such as ISIS and Nusra on the other hand. Each party had to set their checkpoints in the territories they controlled, particularly on main roads, squares and market entrances to prevent access of armed enemies. That is also imitated by some children as part of their daily playtime in spite of the reduced intensity of real combat.

Syrian children play with cardboard guns in the rebel-held town of Harasta, in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus on January 25, 2018. (Photo by ABDULMONAM EASSA / AFP) (Photo credit should read ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP via Getty Images)

A father of one child who played the role of an armed element in a checkpoint said, “such role-play games started to appeal to our kids as they grew affected by the war (that has been ongoing for about a decade)”.

He told Majalla, “What the children watch and imitate for the sake of entertainment and having fun can instill violence in their minds, but there’s nothing we can do. They are just kids; they don’t understand how dangerous this is, and don’t listen to us.”

A social worker at an Aleppo primary school warned that there would be repercussions on children’s mental health, as they are affected by the military conflict and try to imitate it. “The current war has not only affected adults’ lives but also children’s,” he remarked.

“Kids might think imitating war is fun, but in fact this would affect their mental health and reinforce violent ideas. Thus, organizations and entities involved in children’s rights should do their part in advising children’s parents and caregivers to prevent their little ones from practicing these harmful play,” the social worker added.

“Many children at our school are no more interested in animated cartoons, they want to do something bigger and more exciting such as war role-play of fighting between two teams in the school yard.”

The school worker urged parents to prevent their kids from watching the news or photos that incite violence or hatred. He pointed out that “Many children carry smart electronic devices and are affected by the war incidents as they watch footage of fighting. Their parents should monitor these devices and prevent them from following such videos.”

Although the social expert advised against this sort of playing, one child’s mother told Majalla, “I can’t stop my kid from imitating war while playing with his friends. They already play in the street.”

“Our children are eyewitnesses of what’s going on in our land. It’s normal they are affected by the conflict. They were with us when clashes broke out in our neighborhood when we fled our homes, and when we were stopped at security checkpoints in our way to Aleppo’s countryside,” the mother explained.

She added, “Even if we prevented them from watching TV and surfing the internet, they live through everything with us. That’s why we don’t know what to do to limit the war’s impact on them.”

In part to solve the problem, the mother demanded that local authorities ban the trading of plastic guns and arms, and to limit children’s toys to dolls, cars, and other unharmful objects that have nothing to do with war.

Syrian refugee youths play together at an informal tented settlement in Bar Elias, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon April 22, 2021. (REUTERS/Issam Abdallah)

While parents expressed concern over their children taking violent routes in the future, some non-governmental organizations target the development of children’s skills through entertaining activities such as drawing, playing musical instruments, and practicing different sports: football, basketball, chess, and others.

A source in one of these NGOs explained that “developing children’s skills is the best thing to do in order to distract them from war scenes and its impact.”

Another worker in a local association focusing on children’s issues said “Childhood is sensitive and requires huge efforts to handle. Thus, we work with children’s parents to uncover their kids’ skills and divert their attention from war.”

Children are among the most affected groups by the Syrian war that broke out following popular protests in the country in mid-March 2011, according to United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Marking 10 years of Syrian conflict last March, UNICEF held a video conference in which it addressed the effects of war on children. The meeting was organized by UNICEF regional office in MENA and attended by its director Ted Chaiban and regional chief of communications Juliette Toma, and other figures.

During the meeting, Chaiban said that the 10-year conflict in Syria has left “a staggering impact on every single child from Syria.” He also asserted, “The war is leaving a profound impact on children’s mental health, with both short and long-term implications.”

He remarked that the number of refugee children in neighboring countries has increased more than ten-fold to 2.5 million.

According to UNICEF, about 12,000 children were killed since the onset of war 10 years ago.


Jiwan Soz is a researcher and journalist who focuses on Syrian and Turkish affairs and minorities in the Middle East. He is also a member of Syndicat National des Journalistes (National Syndicate of Journalists [SNJ]).


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