A Father’s Murder Triggered Fear of Flowers and Song : Canadians Aid Children Suffering Horrors of Conflict


The little Ugandan girl screams at the sight of flowers and the sound of song, haunted by the memories of her murdered father’s funeral.

Salvadoran children scribble jagged, angry drawings of dead animals or helicopters bombing houses or soldiers shooting people.

The plight of these and other children rank high with Canadian authorities these days as they prepare for another influx of refugees.

They have learned that the effects of war and torture do not stop with the victims. Scars run deep for survivors, especially the young.

Genevieve Cowgill, director of the Canadian Center for Investigation and Prevention of Torture, estimates that up to 1,000 refugee children coming this year to Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, will be affected.


‘Suffer Enormously’

“Children are a very underresearched area of the refugee population. People say they are young and will adapt, but they suffer enormously. They tend not to articulate, so we don’t take any notice,” she said in an interview from her Toronto office.

The center, formed last year by Canadian members of the human rights group Amnesty International, tries to deal with the lingering effects of torture on refugees. Canada accepts about 15,000 refugees a year.

Cowgill said the children display a range of symptoms.

“It can be anything,” she said. “Yesterday I had a little boy in from Guatemala with his mother. When I waved goodby at the end, he kept hitting his head. I asked his mother why.

“Apparently he had seen his father tortured in front of him and hit on the head by police before being taken away.”

Child psychiatrists say they must probe gently when trying to determine the psychological scars.

Dr. Klaus Minde of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children dealt with the 8-year-old Ugandan girl who screamed at the sight of flowers or the sound of singing.

Father Shot and Killed

“Her father was shot down and killed, her mother found the body and arranged a funeral at home with lots of flowers and a lot of singing. For the little girl, all that is connected with what happened to her dad.”

Minde added that the fears of the young often surface in dreams and are not easily dealt with.

“The child dreams he is going to be deported from Canada, sees a policeman in the street and is afraid he is the one who will do it,” Minde said, adding:

“Parents have gone over with the child to talk to the police. The policeman explains, ‘I’m here not to hurt you, but to protect you.’ The child then asks why the policeman is carrying a gun.”

Minde, who worked in Uganda in the early 1970s during Idi Amin’s regime, has found group therapy meetings a great help with families sharing their experiences.

The African Way

“The African way of doing things is to discuss them. It’s good to recreate this,” he said.

Dr. Grazia Kruczer, a child psychiatrist from Chile, noted in dealing with Latin American refugees that “some parents have a tremendous fear of separation and like to keep their children very close to them.

“The parents are not strong enough. They feel fragmented, anxious and depressed. Children feel they have to look after them. I do a lot of family therapy with the parents to make them feel stronger and more able to listen to the children.”

She said that many children also show physical symptoms.

“They cannot sleep, they cry, they have trouble eating. Those two and three have trouble controlling their bowels, they wet their beds,” she said.

Adjustment to School

One of the biggest adjustments children face is school, and authorities have begun taking special care to ease the process.