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 of 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.
As part our project’s first trip to regions accepting Syrian Refugees, we hosted two roundtable discussions with Non-Government Organizations (NGO), 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 possibility of having the app actually developed in collaboration with coders from the population it is intended to serve. ”