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The Science of Resilience

A new documentary film by Ron Bourke
- currently in production -

TERROR AND HOPE, THE SCIENCE OF RESILIENCE shows how scientists and humanitarians are combining rigorous research with informed compassion to help heal Syrian refugee families scarred by the devastating stress of war.

It’s called toxic stress for a reason. It’s stress to a child or adolescent that’s so severe, prolonged, or frequent that it can damage the developing brain - affecting mental and physical health, functionality, and behavior over the young boy or girl’s lifespan. Studies have shown that the brains of children exposed to extreme stress can experience profound changes, disrupting healthy development. Decision making capability is compromised. Control over impulses can be lost. This diminished cognitive ability and actions can impact generations to come.


In Syria alone, it’s estimated that more than 8 million children are suffering from the unrelenting and brutal war. Adolescence represents a brief window of opportunity for young people to develop the skills needed to make positive decisions before behavioral norms are established. For an entire generation of young people coming of age in the midst of conflict and the largest global displacement crisis since the second world war, the compounding effects of spending development years under toxic stress has potentially catastrophic ripple effects on the stability of communities, countries and the globe.


Currently, researchers from Yale and Hashemite Universities are working to understand Toxic Stress through an innovative study measuring the effects of profound stress on generations within Syrian families.  Concurrently, Mercy Corps is developing programs with a goal of repairing damaged neural pathways in refugee children and adolescents while cultivating their ability to become more self-sufficient - building a social and emotional connection with others through the senses, language, sports, nature and art.


To date, the vast majority of stories covering the refugee crisis in Africa and the Middle East have emphasized the politics and human tragedy involved. To make a positive impact on the lives of these vast populations displaced and scarred by war, it’s critical that more is provided than just food and shelter. Current neurological and behavioral science offers insights that could have a lasting effect on how we help these children of war to break the cycle of violence.  For peace to be even remotely possible, we will need a generation of young people with the capacity to positively adapt to adversity.

Our story will be told through the lives of those immediately involved:  Young Syrian and Jordanian researchers and volunteers working on the humanitarian front lines in northern Jordan, gathering scientific data or mentoring refugee teens in Mercy Corps programs. They are smart, committed and driven to help their local communities.  Without them, the research and humanitarian work would be difficult if not impossible.  Yes we will hear from the academics and professional humanitarians who can provide credibility and context, but the human story belongs on the ground and not in the ivory towers or boardrooms of an NGO.  If there’s hope for the future of these young refugees – and the greater stability of a region and perhaps the globe – it will be due in large part to the teams of young aid workers and researchers putting science to work for these oppressed and vulnerable boys and girls.  Our film will tell their story.


Photo © Ron Bourke 2017

TERROR & HOPE is funded in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council