Volunteers In Iraq Are Using Animal Therapy To Help Traumatized Refugee Children

Based on the idea that small loving animals can fix a broken smile, a group of volunteers at a refugee camp located in Northern Iraq’s Kurdish regions have initiated a very fun yet empathetic therapy programme. Displaced Iraqi and Syrian refugee children, from the age of three to eighteen are delighted to be greeted by puppies in the mornings. Dogs, birds and even chimpanzees are brought in for the children to play with.

The idea sparked when one of the organisers noticed the grave and severely high numbers of children afflicted by the conflict in surrounding areas in Iraq and Syria. Nearly half of all Syrian refugees flocking to Northern Iraq are under 18 according to this report by the UNHCR. In particular, their psychological health was very concerning. Inevitably, witnessing the horrific scenes that these children have seen led to this psychosocial intervention as something needed to be done to help these children. Something fun and creative needed to be introduced to help alleviate their suffering. For children who don’t particularly understand what is going on around them, the idea of animal therapy sounded like a good distraction. It brings about smiles and laughter required to forget the painful memories and the current situation that these children are bravely enduring.

The idea that animals are beneficial for our health stretches as far back as the 1700s, where psychiatrists used animals in attempt to calm patients and to raise the quality of life in institutions. On the other hand, recent research has shown that even a short-term positive interaction with a dog can lead to a release in hormones that make us feel happy.

Along with the exposure to little animals, part of the programme teaches the children how to draw the animals that they play with. This allows the children to think of something other than bombs and airstrikes. Of course, the therapy programme does not make the war disappear. Now, there is a growing concern that children in conflict are being inundated with high levels of trauma, that may lead to irreversible psychological damage in the future. Therefore, the programme aims to increase positive interactions with the children. It works to bring comfort and joy into their torn lives.

Many children in such countries have told journalists about some of the unthinkable horrors that they have seen. Therefore, psychosocial interventions like animal therapy should be encouraged. Every child is precious. They deserve the protection and joy that can be arranged for them

Written by Sara Tofiq

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Sara is an undergrad student living in London and through writing she hopes to inspire others. She is obsessed with cats, green tea and likes the sound of rain during the night