McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Book helps Afghan children cope with war

Published: August 9, 2007
Brian Coombes
Fourth-year psychology student Mary-Jo Land (left), presents an Afghan teacher with a certificate.
Photo courtesy of Mary-Jo Land.

A former winner of the John C. Sibley Award for part-time faculty in the Faculty of Health Sciences is one of the authors of a book that strives to help Afghan people heal from the stress and trauma of war.

Joanna Santa Barbara, an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, is one of four peace activists who wrote the book that is being introduced into the Afghan education curriculum.

The book, A Journey of Peace, is a 16-part series that tells the story about a rural family's struggles to cope with the trauma of war in Afghanistan. The war hits close to home when an uncle is killed by a landmine and a father loses a leg. Jobs and family status are lost, the children notice personality changes in their friends and the family is moved to a displaced persons camp.

The story's straight-forward portrayal about dealing with, among other things, estrangement, parental discord, anger and grief, offers through its characters ways to respond to those issues in the home and in the community.

"What we've found in our research is that in various war zones there is a fair amount of activity around healing but nothing - other than this project - that brings together the effects of war and the value of peace education," says Santa Barbara, a psychiatrist who has mentored medical students regarding issues related to international health.

Santa Barbara was the 2004 winner of the Sibley award for part-time faculty, in recognition of her extensive accomplishments and commitment to health care education.

The importance of the grandmother's role as comforter and adviser is highlighted in the book.

Mary-Jo Land, a fourth-year psychology student at McMaster and one of the book's authors, said that grandmothers are vital because they have knowledge of Afghanistan before the war.

"They were the ones who had an emotionally balanced childhood and who are familiar with the culture and the old Afghanistan."

Land, who recently returned from Afghanistan, helped train teachers on how best to deliver the curriculum.

With an average class size of 70 students, Land says teachers are excited about the book's potential to keep their students engaged. Assisting in that regard are colourful hand puppets that animate the central characters in the book: Jameela, Ahmed, Bibi Jan and Merza. They add an element of playfulness to the telling of the story, and also serve as a tool in therapeutic healing.

The book is part of work being done by faculty members of the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University, as they develop a means to ameliorate the mental and emotional distress of war-torn families in Afghanistan.

The other two authors connected with the centre are Graeme MacQueen, and Kevin Arthur Land. The book is illustrated by Hamilton watercolourist Yar Mohammad Taraky.

The authors see the book as finding relevance outside Afghanistan.

"The story is of interest to anyone who wants to understand the dire circumstances and day-to-day life experienced by the Afghan people, but it also resonates with refugees, particularly children, from all cultures," says Mary-Jo Land.

More than 64,000 copies of the book have been distributed to schools nationwide (printing of the first edition was funded by UNICEF).

The book, its images and the teaching curriculum are being made available for free at,

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