EDITOR’S NOTE: The following essay is written by Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He is serving as project director for a joint initiative between the center and Islamic Relief USA regarding disaster response.
At the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, we have an extensive history of developing and applying research to meet the unique needs of children in disasters. Although our focus has mostly been domestic, we have been involved in many international disasters and crises. Last summer, our director, Dr. Irwin Redlener, traveled to Greece on a fact-finding trip to the Syrian refugee camps to see the plight of children caught in this crisis. What he found is what we have all come to know from the media, the research, and our peers involved in this response: we are losing a generation of children whose lives have been disrupted by war, migration, and uncertainty.
In May 2018, Islamic Relief USA funded NCDP to develop a mobile application to assist caregivers in identifying and preventing early mental health issues among Syrian refugee children. This project leverages our long history of developing evidence-based programs to meet the needs of children affected by disasters, and to understand and reduce their associated traumas.
The project begins with a robust needs assessment process that will ensure that the best available science is integrated into the application, and that it is developed in a way that appropriately presents the information to be accessed by Syrian refuges from a wide range of circumstances. Based on this, we will then move into application development and piloting among Syrian refugees in a several locations.
To help guide the project, we have also convened an interdisciplinary board that includes experts in the fields of pediatrics, toxic stress, refugee support, and mobile application development. This board will provide advice and access to a wide range of information, personal experiences to enhance the development of the application, as well as diverse networks to help disseminate it once complete.
Amman and Istanbul Roundtables
As part our project’s first trip to regions accepting Syrian refugees, we hosted two roundtable discussions with non-government organizations (NGOs), government agencies, international institutions, and others to discuss the current Syrian refugee situation from their service-oriented perspectives. Roundtables were held at Columbia University’s Global Centers in Amman, Jordan, and Istanbul, Turkey, in July of 2018. The participants were provided with an overview of the project goals, and were facilitated through a discussion led by our project team to better understand what applications currently exist, what mental health resources exist, what are the gaps, and what are some important lessons for adapting content focused on mental health to Syrian refugees.
The roundtable discussions yielded a deeper understanding of cultural considerations regarding how mental health issues are discussed in Arab culture and new relationships were forged to help develop content and receive feedback throughout development from those already operating in the field. The differences in resources available in a camp versus an urban setting were also explored. We were also introduced to projects that were teaching refugees coding and technological skills, opening the exciting possibility of having the app actually developed in collaboration with coders from the population it is intended to serve.
In our recent trip to the Middle East, in addition to the roundtable discussions we hosted, we also visited partners such as Islamic Relief Worldwide’ s team in Amman, Jordan, as well as other groups providing services to refugees. These visits were perhaps the most important of the project so far, as we could see, first-hand, the opportunity for mobile applications to support the needs of parents and children in mitigating mental health issues developing in children from pro-longed exposure to the stressors of the situation. It also highlighted how much larger the issue is, and that there continues to be great need for more social workers, mental health professionals, and resources to provide a stronger sense of stability for those affected by this crisis.
These partnerships will be critical in developing the application to inform the content. More importantly, they will ensure that the way it is developed, from its technological foundation to its end user experience, is enjoyable and accessible to parents and caregivers in this community.