Red Cross Psychosocial work goes beyond disaster needs in Sichuan

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Francis Markus, IFRC in Suining, Sichuan

Diary I - I can’t fail to notice that 12-year-old Huo Qingdong is feeling uncomfortable as he visibly squirms and fidgets with his hand covering his nose, sitting opposite me on the sofa next to his grandmother.

“Of course when I see other children being picked up from school by their parents, while mine are so far away, it makes me feel bad,” he says, when we visit their home, just a short drive away from the school he attends.

It is two years since he has seen his father and even longer since a visit by his mother. Both are working hundreds of kilometres away in China’s north-western region of Xinjiang.

We drive out for about 45 minutes through lush green countryside to visit 13-year-old Li Hui. “I sometimes feel lonely,” says the slightly-built girl, as she sits in the yard outside her grandparents’ house. “It is different, living with older people; of course they look after me, but it is much quieter.”

The two are among tens of millions of children of migrant workers, who are left in the care of their grandparents or other relatives and sometimes have to care for themselves when they come home at the weekend from school.

When we talk to Hu Xiaqing, Red Cross Society Programme Officer for Psychosocial Support in the city of Suining, she says these children display a number of distinctive behaviour characteristics.

“They often need help to relax and to express their feelings. They tend to be very quiet.”

Issues like these prompted several schools in the area, where up to 50 per cent or more of children in each class are “left behind”, to decide to make use of an IFRC psychosocial toolkit in their efforts to help children vent their emotions.

The kit was adapted to the Chinese context in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake, which devastated large parts of Sichuan and neighbouring provinces, leaving more than 87,000 people dead.

Suining, about two hours’ drive east of the provincial capital Chengdu, was relatively lightly affected by the earthquake.

“But people can see that these techniques, such as allowing the children to express themselves through drawing or through putting their own feelings in the mouth of a panda puppet, can be useful not just in a post disaster context, but also to address broader issues across the whole society,” says Dr. Jeyathesan Kulasingam, IFRC Health and PSP Delegate for the Sichuan Earthquake operation.

Teachers in the Experimental School, which Huo Qingdong attends, say they have been using various psychological techniques to help the children’s emotional development, since 2000.

I do empathize with their challenges, because the deeper they get into psychosocial support, the more questions are raised which the teachers sometimes need professional advice to answer. “For instance a few of the children refuse to participate in the psychosocial activities so the teachers need help with ways of drawing them in,” says Hu Xiaqing.

What is also significant is that the schools adopting this approach have been sharing their experiences with teachers from elsewhere in the province and even from other parts of China. “Our school is in the vanguard of work to address left behind children’s issues, even though other schools are also actively seeking ways to help”, says one teacher at Huo Qingdong’s school.