Psychosocial support for adolescents affected by the Marawi conflict

Children play during a “Fun Day” held at an evacuation center in Pantao Ragat, Lanao del Norte. Supervised and structured recreation and learning activities help children and adolesents affected by the Marawi conflict recover from what they have experienced. Photo courtesy of UNICEF partner CFSI.

LANAO DEL NORTE, Philippines — “I was home when the fighting started,” said Norhana Omar, a 12-year-old from Moncado, Marawi City. “I heard loud explosions and gunfire and saw people running to escape the war zone.”

Norhana had never experienced an armed conflict until the attack on Marawi began on May 23. “I fled with my parents out of Marawi and walked for more than three hours until we reached Pantar in Lanao del Norte,” she said. “We had nothing but the clothes we were wearing that day. I left my books and notebooks and other learning materials. I felt so scared for almost a month after that because the images of explosions and the sounds of gunfire were so vivid to me. We all thought we were going to die,” she said.

In Sadduc Panngao town, a few kilometers from Norhana’s home, another 12-year-old was fleeing the heavy fighting. Johair Mauna was separated from his brothers as he and his uncle tried desperately to reach Pantar. “Almost everyone had already gone and we could see the gunfight getting worse. I was so scared the night we fled that I didn’t notice my brothers weren’t with us until we reached the provincial capitol,” he said.

Norhana and Johair are among more than 200,000 children and adolescents who fled Marawi when government troops held military operations against an armed group that lasted five months. And as with any conflict that results in a massive displacement, conditions in evacuation centers were difficult especially for children.

Children play during a “Fun Day” held at an evacuation center in Pantao Ragat, Lanao del Norte. Photo courtesy of UNICEF partner CFSI.

Critical emergency response

Being first on the ground in the early days of the conflict, UNICEF and its partners worked closely with the Philippine Government to provide rapid needs assessment and response to the displaced population.

Key to the survival of displaced children in conflict situations is timely psychosocial intervention and structured learning process in safe learning places. To achieve this, UNICEF and its partners and key government agencies disseminated key child protection messages through mass media that reached almost 400,000 in evacuation centers and host communities. The campaign accompanied efforts to provide mothers and caregivers with basic psychosocial support (PSS) and protection guidelines to improve child protection.

In partnership with CFSI, UNICEF provided PSS to approximately 5,300 children who participated in therapeutic activities to help them deal with the effects of the conflict.

The first few weeks were very difficult for the children as reflected in their drawings of gloomy figures set in dark colors, burning houses and people escaping. However, after participating in workshops, counseling and group sharing through storytelling, the children’s drawings have changed into colorful ones with less grim messages.

Rebuilding after the conflict

Waiting out an armed conflict was not easy for the children and although the government has declared some parts of the city safe, the majority of displaced families is not expected to return to their homes until early 2018. Thus, relief efforts remain a priority.

UNICEF has identified urgent needs for psychosocial support and back-to-school and mine risk education for children and teachers, scaling up mass measles vaccination, and increasing funding for humanitarian assistance. 
For Norhana and Johair, the end of the conflict and the prospect of going home soon has affected them differently.

Norhana looks forward to reuniting with her classmates and friends. She remains steadfast in her plans to finish her studies in Marawi and become a teacher someday despite the volatile situation.

However, Johair, who has since reunited with his brothers, prefers to stay in Pantar: “I don’t have plans to go back to Marawi City. I love this place and the people who have been taking care of all of us. This is my second home and I feel safe here,” he says.

The road to full recovery for Norhana, Johair and hundreds of thousands of children displaced by the Marawi siege is challenging and may take years. As the rehabilitation phase begins, UNICEF Philippines Representative Lotta Sylwander hopes the government and all members of the community will continue to work together and prioritize sending the children back to school. “Schools provide support to give children a sense of normalcy on their return, and gives easy access to children and their families for more specific interventions and services,” she said.

By Richel V. Umel

For more information about UNICEF’s work in the Philippines, visit