China: A healing touch for children

News and Press Release
Originally published
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By Francis Markus, IFRC, in Shifang, Sichuan

In a classroom about halfway down the row of prefabricated shelters, something a bit different seems to be going on from the standard pattern of lessons that are unfolding in the other rooms - psychosocial support.

"We are really great," shout the couple of dozen teenagers crowded into the room as they slap their hands into a self-embrace position, before a scraping of chairs heralds the lesson's end.

"What it is all about is self-affirmation and regaining confidence for these still emotionally fragile survivors of Sichuan's massive May 12 earthquake," says their teacher Luo Yumei.

Disaster zone

Like almost all the other staff in this junior high school in the heart of the disaster zone, Luo has received training in psychosocial support methods under a Red Cross Society of China (RCSC) programme named Sunshine In Your Heart.

"This is an extremely important start, which is needed in a situation like this," says Dr. Jeya Kulasingam, health and psychosocial support programme delegate with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Sichuan.

On the typed sheet of paper the students have been working from, they have a list of tasks, such as "give the age difference between you and your dad." Many are busy jotting down their responses until they reach the joker in the pack: "Do not write anything down!"

Overcome fear

"The games we were using immediately after the earthquake were completely different in character, designed to help the children overcome their fear," says Luo. This exercise is aimed at training the children to read properly and strengthen their approach to their studies.

Stepping out of the earthquake's shadow, though, is a process that is still by no means completed, says school principal Li Zhihong. Besides care and positive reinforcement, part of the process is to keep the most troubled children busy. "We make more demands on them to study because they will get over their fears if they are kept active," says Zhihong.

Between 20 and 30 of the school's roughly 1,200 children require individual psychosocial attention, in addition to the class sessions given by teachers, following their one-day trainings through Sunshine In Your Heart.

It is not all work and no outlet for their energies. During a recent visit, visitors saw all the school's classes pitted against each other in a group singing competition.

Personal experience

Liu Yujiang, 14, says that from the experience of the earthquake and the counseling which she has received, "I have really learned to treasure life and to be glad that I am alive." Her friend, Xiao Li, also 14, agrees, even though she says: "I had a difficult time at first coming to terms with the death of my cousin, who was only a year older than me."

Fifteen-year-old Zhang Lamei, who lives with her parents and grandfather in a nearby village, says she too has gained strength from the psychosocial support, "but it will take a bit of time before I feel my old self again," she says.

Sitting outside the family's temporary shelter, in front of their quake-damaged farm house, her mother, Liu Shuhui, agrees: "There is still quite a lot of fear and anxiety about what happens next."

"These feelings are normal in a post-disaster environment like this and they show the need for us to support the RCSC as it builds on this experience," says Dr. Kulasingam.

The programme also holds important lessons, beyond those being taught in the prefabricated classrooms, for the way in which the RCSC can respond to the emotional needs of survivors in potential future disasters.