Munich in English - selected by independent Locals for Cosmopolitans, Newcomers and Residents - since 1989

back to overview

October 2003

Inside Out

How a Munich based charity is helping traumatized Iraqi children

What are the symptoms of trauma in a child? Nightmares, stammering, bed-wetting, lack of concentration and social isolation are some that come immediately to mind for Peter Klentzan, a deacon of the Protestant Church in Bavaria. And Klentzan, who was one of the first foreigners to visit Iraq after the cessation of hostilities in May, knows what he is talking about. As the German representative of the charity Wings of Hope, he is trained to help children who have been traumatized by violence and war. For 10 days Klentzan, his wife Renate, a child psychotherapist, and colleague Elvir Causevic, a teacher from Bosnia-Herzegovina, traveled around the cities of Mossul, Kirkuk and Bagdad, making contact with the parents of children suffering psychological shock as a result of the recent war.

Wings of Hope was originally a Dutch charity, initiated by former inmates of the concentration camp in Dachau from the Netherlands. When he realized that the victims of war developed similar symptoms and often suffered the same fears regardless of their experiences, Pieter Dietz de Loos, the son of a Dachau camp inmate, founded Wings of Hope in 1994 to offer psychosocial support to children and young people whose lives had been disrupted by political violence. Klentzan came to the charity through his work as chaplain at the Dachau Memorial site and, before going to Iraq, had worked for the charity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Interviewing the deacon in his Munich office on Landwehrstrasse on a rainy September morning it is difficult to imagine him, careening through the streets of Bagdad with his nervous Iraqi colleagues, traveling directly from one destination to the next, unable to stop anywhere because of the danger of being attacked.

The energetic and straight-talking Klentzan says he was not afraid—at the time of this interview he was planning his next visit to Iraq—and it is clear from his lack of interest in discussing the issue of personal safety that he is entirely focused on his work. Every day during the trip he would meet families and, with the aid of his colleagues, which included an Iraqi pediatrician, try to determine which children needed help most urgently. The problems were manifold. Not only the most recent war, but other earlier conflicts, such as the Iran–Iraq War, the invasion of Kuwait and the decades spent living under a dictatorship, not to mention the effects of the United Nations embargo, all these have torn at the social fabric of the country. Often Kentzan discovered parents who were too depressed to help their children. The collapsed infrastructure, which has left many people unemployed, and the danger of going out meant that families would spend days cooped up together, often without much to eat or drink.

Despite these difficulties Wings of Hope managed to set up two groups, with 30 children apiece and, very importantly, the charity is establishing its own offices in Iraq. “This is the only way to work effectively,” explains the deacon. “Your legal position is quite different, as is your chance of getting access to those people who need help, if your operations are carried out locally. In the long term Wings of Hope Germany will have only a supporting role in Iraq.”

In the groups a variety of activities are offered to help the children come to terms with their experiences. Sport is important for many whose opportunities to go out and play have been curtailed by curfews and their parents’ fears. Any form of creativity is encouraged, especially painting, as a way to work through anxiety and the children are taught specific techniques for dealing with unpleasant or frightening memories. Searching for a way to explain these techniques to a layperson, Klentzan says: “Its about controlling fear. A child waking from a nightmare can learn to gain sufficient control over the images causing the nightmare to treat them like a film. A film that can be stopped and put away, shut away to a place in the child’s mind to which only that child has access.” And then he adds “Most important is for these children to understand that their reaction to frightening situations is normal. It’s the violence that is not normal.”

Measuring the success of such work is hard, though the feedback from groups in former Yugoslavia has been very positive. One thing, however, Klentzan knows for sure since a recent trip to the mountains, is that mechanisms for overcoming fear taught by Wings of Hope can work even on adults. Out hiking with his wife in August, Klentzan witnessed a bad climbing accident. Unable to forget the incident and aware that his wife was suffering distress, he suggested employing the techniques they used in their job. “And,” he says with satisfaction, “they really work.”

Donations to Wings of Hope can be made to the Acredobank München, account nr. 340 36 37, BLZ 760 605 61.

tell a friend