Caring for the caregivers
by Meena Bhandari
Counting the stars is the number one coping strategy, says Richito Aitor Distora, elementary grade school teacher at Mandus Elementary School in Lingig, Surigao del Sur on the severely typhoon affected coastal stretch of the Philippines.
“We can count the stars easily because we have no roofs!” he quips to an audience of 55 colleagues from nearby communities, some of whom lost everything when the typhoon struck last December 2012, but all of who break into laughter.
But this is no comedy stand-up show. This is a psychosocial session for teachers organised by UNICEF and led by Elaine Bainard who has been seconded to UNICEF by the Canadian Government emergency staff roster agency Canadem together with representatives of UNICEF education specialist team.
“It demonstrates just how resilient people are here in the Philippines,” says Bainard “They don’t want to be seen as victims, but as survivors of a terrible event that in many cases has utterly devastated their lives. People here have a great sense of humour, as well as a love for music and dance, all of which they have been using to get them and their communities through very difficult times.”
In a packed classroom in Lingig, along the worst hit eastern coastal region, teachers sit and listen to Elaine helping them understand that the stresses and emotions they face are completely normal reactions to very abnormal circumstances.
Typhoon Pablo (international name Bopha) struck the east coast on Mindanao in the early hours of the 4th December - one of the most destructive natural calamities to hit the Philippines to date. The total estimated damage caused to infrastructure, housing and agriculture is more than $947 million. An estimated 6.2 million people are affected, across 3,064 barangays (villages), and 34 provinces. 216,817 homes were destroyed or damaged, displacing 973,207 people (226,497 families) - only 1.4% of whom are in evacuation centres or camps, making the relief operation difficult to reach men women and children, particularly those living in remote villages and hamlets – even monthsafter the disaster struck.
As well as the routine of school, children have lost school materials and books. The stress of the disaster, loss, displacement, and economic and social vulnerability is likely to impact children’s psychosocial wellbeing, aid agencies say.
UNICEF, Plan International, World vision and Save the Children, the four child focused agencies state that getting children back to school is as much a priority as getting people safe drinking water, shelter and good nutrition.
Up to 95% of schools and child day-care centers were destroyed or damaged in the most affected municipalities. This devastation has halted schooling for thousands of children, with an estimated 170,000 who have found themselves displaced.
“UNICEF has targeted support to teachers because they are primary caregivers. These vital community workers have a real impact on the lives of children. If they are not supported through the grief, anger and stress that they may be facing, they are likely to be less able to support the children in their care,” Bainard says.
Teachers described how they had seen loved ones and relatives lose everything, house, home, appliances, routine and social structures. Many described the deep-seated fear and anxiety they now carried resulting from their experiences. Many others shared their fears for their futures, with shelter and livelihoods for many families still uncertain.
Teachers receiving psychosocial support following Typhoon Pablo, Philippines. © UNICEF Philippines/2012/MBhandari
“I felt so helpless and bad when my son asked me if he could go home now because he was so tired and wet,” she added.
“There is only white sand in Palo Alto, it has become a sandy beach. Nothing is left. When I go back there I feel horrible and very sad.” She describes how her cousin body was found six days later. “We had to bury her straight away, without any ceremony or prayers,” she said.
Coraza’s story is typical of the teachers who attended the psychosocial session, determined to face their ordeals but worried about the uncertainty the future is yet to bring. “I am happy that I am alive and my family is ok. We are not victims we are survivors. We had an unforgettable experience. But, now we need assistance, we need houses and we need to be relocated with no more village of Palo Alto,” Coraza said.
Teacher Jiezl Coraza who says she is not a victim, but is also concerned about her family income and housing situation.© UNICEF Philippines/2012/MBhandari
“People may say they are fine, but they might demonstrate stress in many different ways perhaps over time – maybe not even linking their changing behaviour to an event,” she says. “This may involve not sleeping or not eating, and getting irritable,” says Bainard. Experience of other disasters has shown that people sometimes resort to unhealthy coping strategies like drinking too much alcohol and lashing out in violence particularly against women and children, and it’s important for people to be aware of the danger signs, she says.
The stress on caregivers is high, particularly for women who are the primary caregivers in the home and in their jobs as teachers and day care workers.
One teacher, who did not want to be named, described how her house was destroyed, and she now has to live in the same house as her 10 members of her extended family. She laughed and repeatedly turned her face away, before the tears fell down her face.
“Sessions like this are important too because peoples experiences of the same disaster will resonate with the other people in the room. Expressing feelings about what they have experienced is difficult, and it always needs to be done safely. People will feel a little vulnerable and exposed and they may need to take time for themselves to think about what they and others have said,” says Bainard.
“This is important too because we are taking time for ourselves now, we are mending our broken hearts,” another teacher stood up and told everyone.
Elaine Bainard (back right) with teachers at psychosocial session. © UNICEF Philippines/2012/MBhandari
UNICEF supports children’s right to education and to learn even during emergencies by setting-up temporary learning spaces (TLS), providing back-to-school kits, teaching-learning kits and training teachers on how to run TLS with multiple grades and ages. UNICEF also advocates for and brings together work in Education with Child Protection, Water and Sanitation and Nutrition to ensure an integrated response to affected children, teachers and day care workers.