Sarah Williams is a child psychologist at Refugees As Survivors (RASNZ). She is currently working with the Syrian children and families arriving in New Zealand who seek the support of RASNZ during their 6-week orientation at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre.
World Vision spoke to Sarah about how to speak to Kiwi children about the crisis in Syria and about refugees, and about the new Kiwis arriving here from the Middle East.
1. Speak honestly, but use language they understand
Firstly, ask your child what they know about the situation. Listen to how they are making sense of what they know or what they have seen in the media.
Any discussion with children needs to be adjusted for age and level of understanding but it also needs to be honest. Children trust their parents to help them understand what happens in the world around them.
With younger children use situations they might understand - leaving one’s home, leaving possessions behind, fleeing without saying goodbye, feeling scared, trying to find a safe place. Talk to them about people in Syria needing to quickly leave their home and travel to another country to be safe due to the war.
With older children we can talk about what it means to be a refugee, the complexity of the Syrian situation, persecution, and the difficult journey to seek refuge in another country.
2. Listen and let children express their feelings. Don’t be afraid if you don’t have all the answers
Think about your own feelings about the situation and the questions you have. What information do you need? Then, listen. Listen to what your child wants to know and what they understand. Ask them questions and answer theirs.
Let your child express their feelings. It’s natural to feel angry, sad, fearful, helpless and worried about what is happening in Syria, in neighbouring countries, and in Europe. Let them know that.
Understand that children will respond to information in different ways. Sometimes important questions might come up much later or seemingly out of the blue. Be prepared to repeat answers and have several conversations.
The level of violence is very hard to understand. Adults don’t always have the answers and can’t always make sense of what is happening either. It is okay to say this. It is also okay for you and your child to learn and seek answers together.
Over 100 children come to the World Vision football pitch every day in Jordan.
3. Create hope by showing all the good people are doing
Share the stories and images of those helping across the world and former refugees who have created new lives in a new country. Fiction is also a good way to introduce uplifting concepts and hope for resolution. Good stories can help us make sense of the world.
has made a list of 10 refugee heroes in children’s fiction, characters like Paddington Bear and Superman are all refugees.
4. Make your children feel safe in New Zealand
Many of the images we have seen of the conflict in Syria involve children. This may be the first time that your child has considered that children are significantly affected by the war and it could make them afraid for their own safety. Talk about where the events are happening and emphasise that we are safe in New Zealand. Talk about your child’s life, the people who love them, the community that they are part of. This helps to ground children in their own reality. Talk about your own feelings: “it makes me sad thinking about families in Syria having to leave their own country”.
Limit exposure to repetitive graphic images in the media (as appropriate for your child’s age). The constant replay of images can be upsetting and overwhelming for children. If children do see graphic images, then sit with them and talk through what they have seen and how they feel.
5. Help your children understand the refugees are just like us
We can talk about what life was like for a child in Syria before the crisis. Children went to school, went to each other’s houses, went shopping, played sport, listened to music, practiced their faith, played games, just like us. We can emphasise that what the former refugee children want is just the same as what we want – to go to school, to learn, to make friends, to play, to do fun things in the weekend with their families and friends. The Syrian families arriving in New Zealand hope they can do all these things.
6. Don’t be afraid to tell your children they can make a difference
It is very important that children feel they can make a difference. For younger children this may best be explored by asking what they would need if they arrived in a new country. Ask how they could be kind and helpful to a child from Syria who arrives in New Zealand? Older children are able to understand the role of support agencies both at home and overseas. They could be introduced to the work of Red Cross in New Zealand and the important role Red Cross plays in the resettlement of refugees.
It is important that children stand up for what they think is right. Thinking about injustice in the world, rejecting violence as a method of solving conflict, supporting those who need help, help our children grow into humanitarian citizens.
Children come together in a Child Friendly Space for class and also receive a nutritious morning tea.
7. Make sure you finish the conversation with hope
Watch your child and make sure you are not finishing the conversation with them feeling anxious.
Emphasise hope, kindness and that everyone can do something to help. Talk about ways to help as a family, school or community. Reassure your child that you are there for them to talk to about the situation.
Some useful links
World Vision New Zealand
Top 10 Refugee Heroes in Children Ficton Article