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Child-friendly spaces: rebuilding lives after Cyclone Aila

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2009/Saikat
Billal Hossion, 22, teaches students at the Child Friendly Space at Nolian Forest Government Primary School in Dacop village, Khulna
by Saiful Islam Shameem

DACOP, Khulna, October 15. Nine-year-old Yeasin will never forget the horror of the moment when Cyclone Aila hit his tiny offshore village in broad daylight. He could do nothing but witness neighbours being washed away into the mighty river by the sudden tidal surge. Mud brick houses collapsed one after another. Cattle were driven away by the strong currents, while panicked people swam to find shelter. And some of his playmates were lost forever.

About 4 million people were affected when the devastating cyclone hit Bangladesh and parts of India on May 25, 2009. Many were forced to live in makeshift shelters on damaged embankments or remain marooned by brackish floodwater. Even familiar places became unrecognisable to children within hours, except their one-storey primary school building which remained standing in the remote coastal village of Nolian, 350 km southwest of the capital Dhaka.

The school, which had been specially designed to withstand floods and cyclones, was the only surviving structure in Nolian. It sheltered more than 1,000 women and children after Aila, while men passed sleepless nights under the open sky nearby. Later the school was turned into a child friendly space (CFS), a safe place that seeks to address the psychosocial, needs of children in crisis. 

Nolian Forest Government Primary School is one of 100 CFSs that UNICEF, in partnership with Save the Children UK, established post-Aila to create a place where children could continue their schooling, get free breakfast and lunch, try to relax and learn strategies for how to deal with the risks they face.

 About 300 displaced children aged 6-14 years and 60 pregnant and lactating mothers were eligible to receive services from this centre. The mothers received information on child rearing, as well as food twice a day in order to prevent malnutrition, a leading cause of child morbidity and mortality in Bangladesh.

“The CFS has become the lifeline for children in our village,” said GM Nazrul Islam, a local community member who has been selected as president of the CFS management committee. He said the CFS acted like a “rejuvenating agent” to enliven the community, boost demoralised children and improve kids’ school performance.

CFSs such as the one at Nolian continued to provide their services for five months where communities were still waterlogged, schools remained closed and families had not yet rebuilt their homes.   

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2009/Saikat
Children who were affected by Cyclone Aila play a game at the Child Friendly Space at Nolian Forest Government Primary School in Dacop village, Khulna
One old man said that the facility became the heart of every activity of the community within a few weeks. The CFS is a place of shelter, the centre of all recreational programmes, a protection hub for children and a place where villagers bond together. Some people stayed at the CFS until midnight each night, sharing ideas and stories, and overcoming their ordeal collectively.    

“It’s been working as ‘candlelight in the dark’,” said a young boy, who lost his mother during the cyclone.

In the aftermath of natural disasters like Cyclone Aila children are often more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and trafficking. Local people said the CFS came at a time when parents had little time to look after their children because they were desperate to find food and drinking water. “Because of the child safety at CFS, we could roam here and there peacefully to collect food from long distances,” said Nazrul Islam. The CFS gave parents the chance to rebuild their family’s lives, safe in the knowledge that their children were protected.

Some of the educated young adults of the village also received temporary employment at the CFS, playing a vital role to protect children. Nazrul’s son, Robi, was one such employee, who described CFS as “a life-saving boat in a sunken ship.”

Robi said that every year, two or three children drown in the river Shipsha, but this year no child had gone missing in the river, perhaps because they had somewhere safe to go. He said some guardians were also worried their children might be trafficked into neighbouring India, but the CFS overthrew these concerns by head counting the children twice every day.

The CFS also provided psychological support to traumatised children. School teachers and locals say that this has brought about an amazing result among some children who were severely traumatised following Aila. These children are gradually returning to their normal lives with therapy.

“The children became emotionally shocked after they lost their books, favourite clothes, toys, bicycles and in some cases — their close relatives,” said Syed Mizanur Rahman Raju, a psychosocial therapist, trained in USA. Raju says the mental health of disaster victims is often unaddressed in post-disaster rehabilitation programmes, but he suggests it should be given as much priority as physical health.  

He urged parents and teachers to provide extra attention to children after every disaster for their complete recovery.

Nine-year-old Yeasin has been struggling with the loss of his favourite bicycle, which his poor timber-trader father bought for about $30. 

“I always miss my bicycle,” said Yeasin at Nolian CFS, as tears rolled down his brown cheeks. “My father gave me the bicycle as a gift after I came second in class two final exams. He won’t be able to buy me another bicycle as he has now almost nothing to buy food and clothes.”

While Yeasin continues to struggle with the memories of Aila, he has recovered substantially using the CFS services. “CFS will leave a long-lasting impact on us and our children,” Abdus Sattar observed, placing his affectionate hands on Yeasin’s shoulder.

 

 

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