There are words we are trained not to use as humanitarian communicators. Traumatised is one of them. It’s a word with a very specific meaning applied in specific circumstances. But as I looked at this little boy standing with a plastic gun aimed at my head I could think of no other word.
He is 10 years old and lives with his family in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon. His family fled Syria two years ago. During their journey across the border his father was shot five times. This little boy watched me and my camera intently as my colleagues spoke with his sister and little brother. His stance was causally alert, his shoulders relaxed as he leaned against the wooden frame, but his grip on his toy gun was firm. His eyes were aware of every movement made. He was acting as their guard, their protector.
When he was unhappy with words spoken or the aim of the camera; he kicked, pushed and yelled. I didn’t react as he tried to push me. Nor did I flinch when he raised his toy gun to my head. When he turned the toy gun on himself, I knelt down to meet him eye-to-eye.
He never looked scared and his guard didn’t drop as I tried to smile at him. It was instinct to reach out to him. I lightly placed my hand on his shoulder and rhythmically tapped my finger up and down. It was something I had learned in a psychological first-aid training course. Like most of those courses, you never really think that the simulations they put you through will ever become your reality. I wished, in that moment, I had paid more attention, read more of the materials they suggested. The tapping thing was all I could remember. I have no idea how or why this works, but somehow it did.
He allowed me to gently pull the toy gun out of his mouth. I spoke to him in English. He spoke back to me in Arabic. Neither of us could understand each other, but somehow the simple touch of my hand on his back formed a connection. He leant in closer to me and before I knew it, his head rested on my shoulder.
He remained by my side for the rest of the day. He would still at times kick and push the passing people in the camp. But, he would also now smile. I even managed to teach him how to high five. Up high, down low…too slow. He laughed each time we played this. And as we said good bye at the end of the day he leaned once more into my side. He stood by the car waving goodbye to me as our car pulled away; the toy gun still in his hand.