In 2015, in the name of science, more than 800 teenage boys and girls in northern Jordan each allowed 100 strands of hair to be snipped from the crowns of their heads. Roughly half the teens were Syrian refugees, the other half Jordanians living in the area. The hair, molecular biologist Rana Dajani explained to the youngsters, would act as a biological diary. Chemicals embedded inside would document the teens’ stress levels before and after a program designed to increase psychological resilience.
It was a unique experiment. And it was one that suited Dajani, who’s based at The Hashemite University in Az-Zarqa, Jordan. Dajani looks askance at many humanitarian interventions imported from elsewhere. "I’m always skeptical of any program coming in from the outside, which says they can heal or help," she says. Half-Syrian herself—Dajani’s mother is from Aleppo, her father from Palestine—she was also eager to study the physiological effects of conflict. So when medical anthropologist Catherine Panter-Brick, whom Dajani had met at Yale University in 2012, approached her about putting the resilience-boosting program to the test, she seized the opportunity.
Run by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Mercy Corps, headquartered in Portland, Oregon, and Edinburgh, the Youth Take Initiative—or, in Arabic, Nubader program—would teach stress management and relationship skills to at-risk 11- to 18-year-olds. Nubader falls into a booming category called psychosocial support; the interventions are as diverse as play therapy, parenting courses, and mindfulness training, and they’ve flourished across more than a dozen countries. Many aim to enhance the resilience of children affected by war and other disasters.