Indonesia: Fun and educational activities help children cope with trauma from the tsunami
Banda Aceh, Indonesia--In September, I visited four barracks in Aceh Besar Regency, where children are living with their parents and other relatives. These narrow wooden buildings are one form of temporary housing that people have been living in since the December 26, 2004, earthquake and tsunami that destroyed their houses and all their possessions.
During my visit, some questions came to my mind: What is the condition of the children? Do they feel stressed in the barracks? Are they still having difficulties in coping following the disaster? Is there anybody to entertain them? Have they dropped out of school?
I joined a Fun and Educational Activities in Tents (FEAT) gathering at Cut Gue village, Darul Imanah sub-district, about 11 kilometers from central Banda Aceh, which received the brunt of the destruction from the tsunami. FEAT gatherings are part of the psychosocial program of Church World Service (CWS) Indonesia, a member of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International. CWS and the other two ACT members in Indonesia have been addressing the needs of tsunami survivors in various ways since the disaster occurred, which includes assisting individuals, families, and communities in finding ways to deal with the trauma and cope with their challenges after the tsunami.
At the FEAT gathering, I found myself singing along with a familiar Indonesian children's song. "Di sini senang, di sana senang, di mana-mana hatiku senang." The words mean the children are always happy under any circumstances.
Indeed, the children looked happy as they stood hand-in-hand in a circle in Meunasah (an Acehnese meeting hall), which Church World Service helped to erect in July 2006. From the side, parents watched their children singing and dancing, smiles on their faces.
But this seeming happiness still piqued my curiosity, so I approached a 12-year-old boy who was standing and watching the activity. His face was scarred, a sign of the struggle from being swept up in the tsunami waters. According to CWS staff, after the disaster, he became afraid and withdrew from interacting with friends.
As I approached and greeted him, he stared at me, looking reserved. But he quickly opened up enough to shake my hand.
"My name is Ramadhan, sir. This is my mother," he said, introducing me to the woman beside him. He answered all my questions about his experiences. He attends Madrasah Ibtidyah, an Islamic school at Cot Gue, about one kilometer from the barracks.
Ramadhan explained that when the tsunami occurred, he was swept up by the water. He survived because he held on to a log and waited for help. After the water subsided, somebody helped him.
As we spoke, I could see traces of trauma from these events -- the initial earthquake and the tsunami it triggered. He had become afraid of people he didn't know, but soon found ways to cope.
Ramadhan said that, since joining the program, the playing and singing with the other children has helped his fear decrease little by little. He said he had been entertained with the games, singing, drawing, dancing, and playing.
Ramadhan's mother, Kemala Anshari, affirmed that there has been a change in her son's behavior since joining CWS's FEAT program.
"He used to be a lonely child due to his terrible experience in the tsunami. He was without friends. Now, as you can see, he looks joyful and is willing to talk to you. We feel very grateful to CWS staff and volunteers who truthfully guided and taught our children back to a normal state of mind," said Kemala.
Kemala has also encouraged her youngest child, Saleha, to join the FEAT gatherings. "Our children are not only helped to heal, but they are also given books, clothes, and milk," said Kemala.
The day I visited the barracks was the last FEAT gathering, bringing two months of children's playing and studying activities to a close. Wahyu, the CWS field officer at the barracks, asked those involved for their feedback.
"We really welcome this FEAT activity. This fun activity provides a vehicle for our children to refresh their feelings in a fun situation. They can also develop their talents in singing and dancing," said Nurbaiti, a parent with a child attending the gatherings. Nurbaiti also expressed her gratefulness to CWS-ACT for providing FEAT activities in the barracks, noting that the children were not only kept busy and entertained, but also received snacks.
"Though FEAT activities have ended, we hope you will not forget us and will come here next time," said Mala, another parent.
The FEAT gatherings were part a series of efforts, started in January 2005 by CWS, to address the psychological needs and trauma of children in these barracks. Over the course of the two months, FEAT gatherings, the most education-oriented of these efforts, focused on 12 themes, beginning with helping children become aware of their feelings and ending with them expressing their hopes for the future.
The CWS psychosocial services available to children here will now enter a phase in which trained members of the community will be able to take over providing for the children's psychological needs. The establishment of reading centers for children is also part of CWS's plan. Any children with persistent signs of trauma will be included in new activities of smaller groups or referred to psychological professionals.
The end of the FEAT gatherings was marked by the shaking of hands among the CWS staff and volunteers, the children and parents, and others who were involved. At this moment, I again observed Ramadhan, the boy I had been talking to. As he realized that he would soon part with CWS staff and volunteers who had guided and supported him, he spontaneously went up to Wahyu and offered him a hug.
"Please forgive all my faults. Sometimes I am a naughty child in our activities. But please come back again," said Ramadhan while holding Wahyu tightly.
With mixed feelings, I left the barrack, knowing that people would continue to live there for some time with an uncertain future. I was concerned about the children after the end of the FEAT gatherings. But the sign of hope on the children's faces and the promise of Wahyu to stay in touch with Ramadhan answered my concern.
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Lesley Crosson, CWS/New York, 212-870-2676; email@example.com
Jan Dragin (24/7), 781-925-1526; firstname.lastname@example.org