Syrian children find hope at the Sir Bobby Charlton Centre in Amman

Jordanian journalist Noor al-Saleh recently wrote a feature on the Sir Bobby Charlton Centre in Amman, which was published in Arabic and French on the Al Mashareq website.  This English translation of her piece is reprinted with her kind permission.

Walking into Sir Bobby Charlton Centre in Amman, I was taken by few paintings that were hung on the wall. Some were brightly colored, while others were not so cheery. One painting featured a group of kids on wheelchairs, another showed a brother and a sister mourning the death of their mother. I saw people crossing borders and others drowning in the sea. I saw mass graves, soldiers and weapons. Yet as I walked down the aisle, the colors were getting brighter and the paintings captured happier moments. A kid was shown going back to school, another was looking through a window. There were flying balloons and a group of kids on wheelchairs rebuilding Syria.

In the nearby room, I met some of the kids behind those paintings. They were attending an art class. They were quiet yet so engaged in their drawings. The sketches depict their interpretation of the recent civil war in Syria. Between the lines, you can see memories, fears, and hopes. Some kids drew their life before the war; friends playing together, families bonding. Others painted what they saw when the war erupted; from violence, bloodshed and destruction. A number of drawings narrated the refugees’ journey from Syria up until their arrival to Jordan.

Located in a busy business area in Amman, the Sir Bobby Charlton Centre, administered by the Jordanian non-governmental organisation Asia Development Training (ADT), receives war-wounded Syrian refugees and Jordanian victims of landmines and unexploded ordnance. An estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees have fled to the Kingdom of Jordan, seeking shelter after the war in Syria erupted in 2011. Many of those refugees are going through physical and psychological trauma after losing a limb, and family members.

In response to the urgent need for mental and physical rehabilitation, the government of Jordan has allowed the opening of some Syrian centres to cater for the psychological and physical treatment of those refugees.
Since its establishment in 2013, ADT has been providing prosthetic rehabilitation and mobility services to the war-wounded survivors through its National Rehabilitation project, funded by the Polus Center for Social & Economic Development, a US based non-profit organization, funded by US State Department/WRA. Prosthetic care used to happen through local rehabilitation centers that are scattered in different governorates in Jordan. Yet recently, ADT has partnered with UK charity Find A Better Way to launch the Sir Bobby Charlton Centre for Support and Rehabilitation to provide refugees from different conflict zones with physical and mental support, all in one place.
“The majority of the refugees that visit the Centre have spinal cord injuries or have lost a limb,” said Akram Ramini, the director of ADT. Those cases receive mobility devices and rehabilitation services including artificial limbs, wheelchairs, braces, physical and psychological therapy. “Assistance is provided following the person-centred approach,” explained Ramini. “Technicians listen to the cases received and provide solutions on an individual basis.”

The Sir Bobby Charlton Centre, located inside the ADT premises in Amman, is brightly designed and furnished with up to date equipment. The art therapy participants that visit the center (aged 5-16) live in different refugee camps in Jordan, but mainly in Zaatari, the biggest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Seventy percent of them have lost one parent, and many their entire families. The Centre brings them all together as war victims who have gone through the same suffering, losses and pain. They meet, talk and play. They vent up. They are there because they want part of their life back.
A large component in the project involves training those refugees who have lost a limb, to heal themselves first and then become trainers in several rehabilitation fields including physical therapy, child trauma, peer support and prosthetic and orthotic care and other mobility aids, explained Ramini. It’s what is known as “trainer of trainer.” Some of these technicians have already returned to Syria to provide prosthetic services to recently-injured war victims.

The healing process of children comes in stages. “After fitting a prosthetic comes the need for psychological support,” said Dr Niveen Abu Zeid, the trauma support trainer. “At the beginning, there is denial. They don’t easily accept the artificial limb. Although they are walking again, deep inside they know they are not like before,” she said. “This usually leads them to depression.”

Role playing, meditation and art are introduced by specialised trainers to bring out some of what the kids have been through so they can deal with their emotional trauma. This helps them forget, heal and dream again. Some have discovered themselves as artists, others as writers. “For those who had set dreams for their future, but now their injury does not allow it, I try to direct them towards a similar dream,” said Abu Zeid. “The child who wants to be a football player but lost his leg can become a sports analyst, and most of the time, we find a new aspiration for them to work towards”.

The group of refugees I met in the art class had no injuries, but have been traumatized from what they saw during the war. “Most of them have seen explosions and people dying in front of them,” said Abu Zeid. The art classes are part of an extensive art therapy programme, designed specifically for those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Batoul, a 12 years old Syrian refugee from Daraa, was drawing her room as she last remembers it. It was beautiful, clean, and it is where all her special toys and belongings are. When she came to Jordan she was only seven years old. She comes to the Centre in the morning hours before her evening school starts. Before visiting the Centre she never knew that she had a talent for drawing.

On the shelf lie the drawings of other refugee kids who have finished their rehabilitation and now are back to their refugee camps. Many of the sketches belong to Khalid, a 16 years old Syrian refugee from Daraa. His drawings are full of many mixed feelings, especially the ones he drew before he started his treatment. Khaled was always quiet when he first came to the Centre. After few sessions, his therapist got him to speak about what he actually experienced back home. The last thing Khaled remembers about his home in Syria is his mom as she was heading to the kitchen to prepare him a meal. He then woke up and found himself in Jordan, partially paralyzed, diagnosed with brain damage, and an orphan.
Khaled is now painting from his home in Zaatari and from time to time visits the center as part of ADT’s follow up programme. His paintings are all about rebuilding Syria. But the kids who are rebuilding his country all ride on wheelchairs.

While in Ahmad’s drawings, you keep seeing a figure that is almost there in every painting and Ahmad is playing with. Ahmad was drawing his uncle. He was so attached to him, but he lost contact with him when the war began.
Although most of the kids have adapted to their life and school in Jordan, the majority want to return to Syria. Adam wants to go back because he misses feeding the pigeons on his roof at home. “I am sure they also miss me by now,” he said.

For Malak, there are beautiful things she loves about Syria that she cannot find here in Jordan. When I asked what they were there is only a silence that explains it all.