We had the pleasure to welcome the (foster) families and different services involved in the (re)integration process of the children that returned from the camps in Northeast Syria, for our kick-off RELAB. During this session the participants had the opportunity to exchange their experiences and discuss the challenges they encounter. We are very thankful for this inspiring afternoon!
To get a better understanding of the social development, school functioning and emotional well-being of these children, we invited the (foster) families together with all services involved in the (re) integration process to share their expertise and to reflect on the important elements and challenges they encounter. More specifically, the participants were (foster)families, social workers of the social services of the juvenile courts, foster care services, educational support services and teachers that shared the knowledge and experiences they’ve acquired.
Due to covid, the RELAB took place digitally. We organized two rounds of digital conversational tables with 22 participants. In the first round, the groups consisted of people with the same professional background and the foster parents. The participants were asked to discuss experiences related to the children’s development with a focus on (1) elements that surprised them and (2) challenges they encountered. A first important remark was that various services indicated that professional secrecy makes it difficult to participate in such a meeting. The small group of returned children and teenagers makes it easy to trace who is being talked about. Nevertheless, the meeting resulted in a rich exchange with several general findings that will be described below.
In general, the children are doing very well, they surprisingly have a great resilience. It is
noticeable that the mothers have managed to protect the children well from the war. The
children have a very good relationship with their mothers and have a safe attachment style.
They have good values and norms which makes it easier for them to integrate in society.
While the mothers are serving their sentences in prison, most of the children are placed in
foster care with their families. So, they are living in an environment that is familiar with their
story and, unlike in society, they do not have to keep it secret. Everyone indicates that the
separation between the children and their mothers has been difficult for all the children,
especially when they don’t have the perspective of having their mothers back in their lives
anytime soon. Foster care by their own families has a healing influence on the children, but it
also comes with its vulnerabilities. The families are once again confronted with their own
trauma which can lead to unspoken family tensions that are felt by the children. Different
participants stated that policy should pay more attention to the processing and healing of the
The experience of trauma is influenced by age. Older children have more memories and
seem to have been scarred more by the events in the camps. For the younger children, the
integration goes very well in the beginning with little to no signs of trauma. Over time, when the children are settled down, more difficulties in emotion regulation begin to arise. Some
triggers cause emotional outbursts that differ depending on age: yelling, crying fits, physical
and verbal aggression. The separation from their mothers also causes behavioral problems
for several children. In a few cases, difficulties with authority were noticed. It is not always
clear for the schools to identify the source of the difficulties. Is it by trauma, their life history
or something else? According to various social services, most behavioral problems result
from separation from their mothers.
Integration and stigma
Although the integration is going well, everyone agrees there is a need for guidance.
The children are watched and monitored with great care. This is especially mentioned by
teenagers, as they are busy developing their identity. They need freedom and do not
understand why they must ask permission from the juvenile court for everything they do. For
them, radicalization is not a relevant theme, they are engaged in daily teenage activities and
aren’t doing anything wrong. This makes it difficult for them to understand why home
counseling services are mandatory.
Young people not only have to answer to the juvenile court, but also to their social
environment. Being a child of parents who left for Syria creates stigma. Some foster families
try to protect the children from it by moving to a different neighborhood to facilitate
integration in society. In several cases, this leads to children being implicitly or explicitly told
they are not allowed to share this part of their history with the outside world.
For a number of foster families, the search for a school was not an obvious task. Some
schools reacted very shocked and intensely to the news that these are the children of
returnees. They were concerned about the reactions of other parents and the commotion
surrounding the start at school. With the help of the social services, these schools have
joined in the story and there is now a good cooperation between the schools, the foster
families and the social services. In several schools, they do not know who these children are
at the request of the foster families to avoid stigma. But if a child shows symptoms of
trauma, the agreement is that the school will be informed so that they can respond
appropriately when the child is triggered by something. In that case, social workers will
inform the school that this child came from a war zone, without necessarily specifying where
the child is coming from.
In the beginning, the children showed a clear learning delay, which was quickly made up due
to their great inquisitiveness, motivation, resilience and strong cognitive skills. For a number
of preschoolers, learning Dutch went more smoothly than with children born in Belgium. In
general, it can be said that the learning development and adaptation to the school system
are going very well. The children were quickly integrated into the class group, made friends
easily and in general we can say they function like other children in class.
Working with this target group requires customization. The social workers indicate that it is
more difficult to work with them than with other cases, because of the sensitivity and
complexity of this situation.
Legal aspects are complicated for the families. They encounter a lot of difficulties in the administrative arrangements of the regularization of the identity cards of the children.
Strengths and challenges
In the second round of this digital RELAB, transdisciplinary conversation groups
were formed to determine appropriate activities needed to achieve a good
integration. The participants were asked to identify the strengths and challenges of
the current approach, and raised the next findings:
At the beginning of the integration process, there is a large network and good cooperation
between the different services. This multidisciplinary collaboration and communication is
experienced as very important in order to offer a complementary range of care services to
children and foster families. This cooperation is also very complex, because of the various
actors who pursue different interests of the children. There is a lack of an unambiguous
policy, which means that a lot of information is lost between the various services and
schools. For example, schools indicate that they have little insight into the assistance
process and that they need more support.
The further development of transdisciplinary cooperation is strongly recommended to ensure
the continuity and sustainability of the network that has been developed.
Good communication with the mothers and foster families is also indispensable. The
services and schools experience the involvement of the mothers very positively. They
believe that the mothers should have a more important role in the integration of their
children, even if they are in prison.
There is a very strong voice that puts the normalization of the children and their families first.
They should be approached in the same way as other children at home, at school and in
leisure time. For a good integration, they must be given the opportunity to experience a
normal childhood, based on their resilience.
Although normalization is preferred, some services must use specific protocols developed
for these children. It is identified that these children need a different kind of support that
requires a specific preparation. Teachers and social workers are highly motivated, but
resources and training are limited. An important question that arises is whether there should
be a standard specific protocol for all services?
A question that arises from the schools is a future outline of the school career. The schools
are very committed to guiding the children through learning disadvantages. An individual
trajectory is worked out for each child, which means that some children are not in class with
peers. Some suggest that these children should be able to be on an accelerated trajectory,
so that they can connect more quickly with peers. Others do not see the importance of this
and believe that the children can best evolve with the class group they have been integrated
into. Developing a trajectory towards secondary education is quite a challenge, taking into
account their learning skills, emotional development and their social interaction.
Another important point is privacy. In the verdicts that are published, childrens’ names are
mentioned, while it is important that the unanimity and safety of these children is preserved.
A final important challenge is the story about their previous years of life that is told to the
children and how this is done. Everyone indicates that after a while the children start asking
questions about their early years of life, about their mothers and fathers, and their need for explanation and answers. Some children talk about the situation in the camps or tell about their mother who is in prison. Schools indicate that they need support, because teachers do not always know how to deal with this. Social services argue that the questions that children ask must be answered honestly, although at the pace and level of the child. Gradually the child will process this and ask new questions, which will make the story grow. Withholding or distorting information could damage relational trust with the child.
For the foster families, this is a difficult topic that involves a lot of pain and trauma. They had hurtful experiences because of the departure of their family member. They are trying to protect the children from this painful past. How the story of the parents is brought to the children must be discussed with attention, care and in consultation with the mothers and families.
In summary, we can say that the first kick off RELAB was successful. The divergent voices brought different perspectives to the discussion that stimulated reflection. Due to time constraints and the complexity of this topic, there are still many matters that require further discussion. An important question that currently exists among the various services and foster families is the story that is told to the children. For this reason, it was decided to organize a next RELAB in the near future that focuses solely on this theme.