Indonesia

Indonesia: Beyond the veil - instilling hope in Aceh's children

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by Stacey M. Winston of American Red Cross and Virgil Grandfield

Behind a black veil, 15-year-old Rohil Al Azizah's eyes are her only expression. At first glance, they seem sad -- a moment later, they indicate a smile.

Since enrolling in this Islamic girls' boarding school in the village of Montasik, near Banda Aceh, two months ago, Rohil feels calmer about the devastation her family suffered months ago. The American Red Cross and Turkish Red Crescent psychosocial team, trained to give mental health support in the wake of disaster, is there to help her play and smile.

Rohil has been arranging and gluing wooden sticks, like those used in ice-creams, provided by the counselling team. It is part of an activity-based approach the team is using with tsunami survivors in orphanages and schools in this region. After building a bowl and pencil case, Rohil is ready to tell her story.

Following a massive earthquake on December 26, Rohil and her family heard people shouting that "the water is coming!" Rohil, her older brother and sister got in the car to escape. Her parents, younger brother and sister didn't make it to the car before the huge tidal wave swept them and the village away.

"I saw my father and my mother floating in front of me," said Rohil with tears in her eyes. "But I couldn't do anything."

After the water receded and the car stopped floating, Rohil got out of the vehicle to help her mother. Since they found their mother alive, the family believed their father had also survived and continued searching for him. Rohil thought she heard her father's voice calling for help.

"I shouted as loud as I can, calling for him," she recalled.

Rohil found her father stranded on the roof of the house. After asking for help several times, a man finally helped her carry her father down. She then brought him to the nearby health centre.

"He swallowed too much water," she said sadly explaining that her father died the day after the tsunami. Tragically, she also lost her younger sister -- her body found near the mosque -- but another brother had been rescued.

Now, by studying and learning the Koran at the boarding school, Rohil tries to fulfil her father's last dream. Being with 80 friends and 15 teachers offers her opportunities to share her feelings and is helping her cope with her loss.

Rohil was overjoyed to see the psychosocial team from the American Red Cross and the Turkish Red Crescent when they arrived last week at her school. The disaster mental health experts engaged the students in creative and expressive activities, such as cooking and baking together and making handicrafts.

The activities encourage a natural flow of communication and sharing of feelings between the girls who have suffered losses due to the tsunami. An assistant principal told one of the Indonesian Red Cross volunteers that she had never seen the girls as happy as when they were cooking and making candy together.

"These girls are not normally allowed to go out, so their lives consist only of studying," explained Meric Gozden, social worker for the Turkish Red Crescent. "And they don't share their feelings -- seeing that most of them experienced trauma from the tsunami -- so the sharing groups help them to handle their feelings and to cope."

In addition to providing therapeutic activities for the children, the Red Cross provided supplies to help the children and their care givers. The Indonesian Red Cross saw the need to provide bedding and gave mattresses and pillows.

The American Red Cross and Turkish Red Crescent provided cots and school materials -- including notebooks, crayons and pencils -- as well as paint and paint brushes to the schools.

"The children painted their own school," explained Sujata Bordoloi of the American Red Cross, "as a way to have a sense of place. Since some are orphans, they do not have a home and have been displaced from their community."

Bordoloi indicated that the activities have opened the children's world to other people. "When the psychosocial support teams left the boarding school, the girls were heard saying, 'We have new friends now'."

The tsunami brought destruction to the lives of those who lost everything, but therapeutic and disaster counselling programmes, such those conducted by the Red Cross and Red Crescent teams, instil hope in the lives children and will continue to do so for years to come.

The American Red Cross's long-term recovery plans include disaster mental health programming in two districts in Aceh for 30 schools and 30 communities which will help thousands of people struggling to cope with the trauma brought by the earthquake and massive tidal wave.

Along the way, the programmes will help many more children like Rohil to express themselves with more than just their eyes.