Understanding the toll of war on children

August 24, 2016

Mazen El-Baba is bringing together his passion for social justice, and his study of neuroscience, to better both and better his community.

The Western University student is in the 2nd year of a Master’s program in Neuroscience. In September 2015, he started a non-profit organization, H.appi, which works to de-stigmatize addiction and mental health issues in the Middle East and Africa.

Born in Lebanon, El-Baba witnessed how mental health issues are often addressed in the Middle East and North Africa; “Society focuses more on the reputation of the family rather than the individual,” he said and often someone dealing with addiction or mental health issues cannot receive support.

H.appi is working to support research in the Middle East and North Africa, providing grants to researchers in the area, and to support resources such as a mental health hotline.

“Right now, there is almost no research going on, so small grants will go a long way,” said El-Baba.

Through H.appi, El-Baba was in contact with many families of Syrian refugees as they came to Canada, and noticed behavioral problems in some of the children. He felt some form of intervention was needed, and this summer, he organized a summer camp for some of these children, designed to provide opportunities to learn English, connect with local groups and have a summer camp experience.

But El-Baba saw another unique opportunity. Working with Bruce Morton and Daniel Ansari, professors in the Department of Psychology, El-Baba collected baseline data about intellectual, behavioral and cognitive data from children in the camp.

Morton and El-Baba hope the data acquisition can be part of an ongoing relationship creating a longitudinal study to help identify how trauma and adversity may affect how children learn, and develop cognitive reasoning.

“This data can be used by multiple stakeholders in the future,” said Morton, “Schools, the healthcare system; they can all use this data.”

The information can also be used to see what traits or characteristics may help identify factors that make children resilient and may lead to future success. This, in turn, can be used to help better prepare for refugee resettlement, Morton explained.

“I like to join causes I feel I can make a difference in, usually a cause where there’s marginalized people and someone who needs an advocate. I want to give people a voice because they can contribute to the community immensely,” said El-Baba. “I do come from a country that experienced war and I was there once.”

“I believe community service has to be part of anyone’s work,” said El-Baba. “To feel I’m able to give back to the community is in investment in myself and the community at large.”

Read more about the camp and the study.