She has trouble controlling her bladder. She has trouble sleeping. When she finally sleeps she has trouble waking up. She has flashbacks, about the house that was bombed, about the hunger and weariness as her family travelled on foot from Damascus to Turkey, then on to Canada, a journey that took them two years, moving from place to place and camp to camp, often hungry, always homeless.
She is five years old. And now Over the Rainbow, a program provided by the Thorncliffe Neighbourhood Office, is helping her – and others like her – learn to be a child.
Zena Alkheder is one of an increasing number of Syrian refugee children turning up at Thorncliffe Park who are suffering from early social or emotional health problems.
“We are seeing more and more cases of young children with psychological stress problems as Canada moves to fulfill its commitment to take in Syrian refugees,” says Nawal Al-Busaidi, Manager of Child, Family and Youth Services at TNO.
Over the Rainbow is a creative play program for children three-to-five years old who are experiencing these types of problems. The spring term, just underway, consists of eight free weekly sessions.
All children can have difficulties adjusting emotionally to different life situations and may be moody or have trouble listening, waiting, and/or making changes to their routine. But this program is designed especially for children who have been through traumatic times such as those Zena experienced.
While the kids attend their program, parents participate in their own group where they explore their feelings and experiences in a supportive group environment. The groups are aided by a parent worker, program worker and creative arts therapist.
Nikki Goldman-Stroh is the creative arts therapist. “For children it is often difficult to describe a situation or feeling, and the art/play therapy allows them to explore their feelings in a safe way,” she says.
“Zena’s symptoms were listed during the intake process – a 30-minute interview we do to figure out whether the family is a good fit for our program, and vice versa.”
“During the interview Zena’s mother told me that Zena is experiencing trouble controlling her bladder functions, has disruptive sleep, which she is very difficult to wake from and also seems to be experiencing flashbacks,” she added.
Her father, Khaled, describes what she went through.
“We were living in a suburb of Damascus prior to running on foot to Turkey; we came to Canada via Turkey. There were days when we were not eating, sometimes four days straight. We were on constant move for about two years trying to find a safe haven.
“One time, I went to get bread and when I came back the house we were staying in had been bombed. I could not find my family at first, until a neighbour told me they were safe.”
The therapist Nikki says, “Zena worked on creating a ‘safe place,’ which is a 3D miniature room box that serves as a place for her mind to go to when she is re-experiencing the trauma.
“She imagines herself in this room. She picked a bedroom as her room and then painted the walls and decorated it. Zena is a very quiet little girl who is adjusting to Canadian life.”
At last Zena has her own safe place…somewhere Over the Rainbow.