Building peace this Christmas, starting in the playground

This blog was originally published by Huffington Post.

The numbers are so large that my mind is numbed. Today, there are as many refugees and internally displaced people around the world as the entire British population. That's more than at any time since the Second World War. And the crisis seems dug-in with little sign of abating.

Of course, refugees are not evenly distributed. Take the tiny country of Lebanon; it is 23 times smaller than the UK and yet a quarter of its population are Syrian refugees. That would be like Britain accepting 19 million refugees: can you just for one moment imagine the impact that would have on our services, not to mention our national debate? In case you are wondering – Britain has in fact promised to accept a shameful 20,000 refugees by 2020.

Half of Lebanon's over 1 million Syrian refugees are children. And growing up as a Syrian refugee child can be pretty tough there. Those younger than seven have only known war; they have often themselves experienced bombings, had multiple family members killed, had to flee their beloved homes, and are now crammed into tents, makeshift constructions of discarded plastics, or tiny overcrowded flats. They have rarely found a place of safety, and peace, a place to play.

That is what the peace education classes which International Alert runs in Lebanon seek to provide. The children come in and for two hours they play – dancing and drawing and singing, expressing themselves and often giving voice for the first time to their pain and loss.

Elio Gharios is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist who works for our partner organisation Basmeh and Zeitooneh (meaning Smiles and Olives) running a number of centres. He says: "Peace is about being able to play. The world can never be as peaceful as these two hours the children have here, this little moment."

In his gentle way, Elio explains that the children have often seen killing, blood and death. They have seen people holding a gun to someone's head. They are angry and confused, and the teenagers feel guilty about surviving. So this is a time for them to find words to express feelings, instead of using violence. Gradually they learn to play together with others again, to express their wave of sadness, to find calm and cooperate with other children instead of fighting. As one mother said: "You did not change my children 80%; you changed my children 100%. Now they have friends and they play – which they were not doing before."

These children have tough lives. One boy works in a bakery so always arrives covered in flour. This is his only chance to be a child. Another little girl wakes at 2.00 every morning to do the chores at home – her mother is very sick, her father not around. But the little girl ensures she comes to her peace education classes saying: "I'm a kid, I'm only a kid here."

In one room, after singing and dancing, the children settle down to draw and paint, surrounded by pots of paint and brushes. They paint solid houses, often by the sea. When I ask, the little girl explains that is a picture of her home back in Syria and her father whom she wants to see again but who is also in Syria.

This work is slow and painfully underfunded, yet urgently needed. Study after study has highlighted the prevalence of mental trauma among Syrian refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), "the most prevalent and most significant clinical problems among Syrians are emotional disorders, such as: depression, prolonged grief disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and various forms of anxiety disorders." Their situation is worsened by lack of treatment and continued high levels of stress. But only a fraction are receiving any support.

Mental health issues are also a similar story in other conflict situations. Earlier this year, research jointly carried out by International Alert found that 32% of those displaced internally in Ukraine suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, yet three quarters of those who needed mental healthcare did not receive it.

Thanks to high profile campaigns supported by celebrities, the spotlight has been put onto the dangers of landmines left after the guns fall silent, and millions have been invested in the slow, painful task of inching forward to take out landmines. But the need to de-mine our minds is just as urgent. They too are filled with the debris of war, filled with hatred and vengeance that needs to be addressed. Just as in de-mining, people creep forward inch by inch, so too we need a comprehensive approach to meeting the mental health needs of people affected by war.

In Britain, providers of mental health services have long been lobbying for 'parity of esteem', valuing mental health equally with physical health. Globally, too, we need to give 'parity of esteem', and so attention, to the mental health needs of all those whose minds have been scarred by war. It is the right thing to do, to support innocent people including children caught in the crossfire. However, it also makes sense. By helping people overcome their trauma, we are helping them become the adults who will rebuild their nation. Half of all peace deals fall apart within 5 years – in part because not enough attention is paid to that healing and reconciliation process.

And where better to start than with children, the future of their country, who can with a little help learn to play again, to deal with their grief. As Elio says, children have the right to express their opinions, to know about finding peaceful ways to resolve conflicts to say: "I don't have to follow this or that armed group". He continues: "For young people this can be a turning point to regain hope for the future and spread the message of peace."

This Christmas, you can support our Peace Play Project by visiting The Body Shop, where every gift purchased from their seasonal gift collections will contribute to the project. The Body Shop is aiming to raise £250,000 this Christmas. That's enough to support 600 Syrian refugee children and their families to join peace education classes for one year. So if you are on my Christmas list, I am afraid your gift is not going to be much of a surprise. But it is going to be very lovely: little sweet-smelling pots of peace.