Elias Ayoub remembers what it was like sitting in a bomb shelter as a frightened child, in Lebanon during the Civil War, as missiles rained outside.
“We used to count the missiles as they were coming, because you could hear them when they were being fired, and we would try and make music around that,” he told HuffPost Canada. “We would try and put a beat around it so we could deal with the impending doom that one of those missiles could actually hit our apartment building.”
This intuitive experience, of using games to manage fears, stuck with Ayoub ― long after he left his home country and immigrated to Toronto as a teen in 1989.
Today, as the Global Program Director for Canadian-based international non-governmental organization Right to Play, he has been able to return to Lebanon to help a new generation of children dealing with adversity. While the Civil War ended in 1990, many children still face challenges in his home country, and in recent months these have been multiplying:
“We’ve been through a very tough year, since October 17th , when mass protests and political instability broke out. And after that we had the COVID 19 crisis, and then after that we had a financial crisis,” said Ayoub. “And now we’re facing the situation of the Beirut explosion... so children have not had the ability to live in stability.”
Right to Play has been on the ground in Lebanon since 2006, to work with children from Palestine and later from Syria, in refugee camps. When Ayoub spoke with children in the camps, he was struck by how they were struggling to visualize what their future could hold for them.
“It’s really crazy when you’re talking to young children: Usually they say I wanna be a doctor, I want be an astronaut, I wanna be this, I wanna be that, but the overwhelming response of these kids was saying, ‘I dunno. There’s nothing.’” said Ayoub.
One of the goals of Right To Play has simply been to restore a sense of hope. The organization uses games, art, and music to help kids process overwhelming experiences and emotions. It pivoted, two months ago, to working with children traumatized by the Beirut Explosion of Aug. 4, which could be heard as far as 240 kilometres away, in Cyprus.
“The day of the explosion, I was on the road and I had passed the site of the explosion,” Ayoub said. “You can imagine the scenes: Bodies on the ground. Body parts even. Certain areas where you couldn’t drive through because you didn’t want to make the mistake of running somebody over.”
As a result of the warehouse blast, 300,000 people lost their homes in Beirut. More than 200 people died and an estimated 6,500 were injured. And after the disaster, many children were showing symptoms of distress, such as struggling to communicate, sleep or go about the most basic activities of their daily lives. They would also be triggered by loud noises and smoke, and terrified that there was going to be another explosion.
So, Right To Play went to work.
“When children first arrive to the activity, they might be a bit closed off; they might be a bit distrusting ― again, very fearful, very unsafe,” explained Ayoub. “After a couple of weeks, they start participating more actively in the activities, and they start to express themselves more comfortably.”
The approach of Right to Play really resonates for Ayoub, and he feels grateful to be help kids, who remind him, in many ways, of his younger self.
“Play got me through a lot of different things,” he said. “I really had a tough time of it [as a child]. I was dealing with a lot of things internally. But whatever happened, I always had an idea in my head that I needed to give back in some way.”