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In Afghanistan, mending spirits and providing warmth

By Nicole Foster with Shamsullah Wafa

With children still traumatized and families struggling to prepare for winter, UNICEF is helping to provide psychosocial support and relief supplies following the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that struck Afghanistan on 26 October.

TALOQAN, Afghanistan, 18 November 2015 – “I am scared. I don’t want to come to school alone,” says 10-year-old Samira, a student at the Bibi Hajera High School in Taloqan, in Afghanistan’s Takhar province. Twelve girls at the school lost their lives and at least 38 were injured in a stampede, in one of the most tragic incidents reported during the earthquake that struck on 26 October.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2015/AEP
Atifa, 11, listens in at a psychosocial peer support session supported by UNICEF at the Bibi Hajerah High School in Taloqan, in Afghanistan's Takhar province.

Haunted by images of her classmates who perished in the disaster, she is attending her first UNICEF-supported psychosocial care session, accompanied by her mother.

Samira is not alone in battling her anxiety. Atifa, 11, is attending the session with her grandmother. Her state if shock is palpable. 

Atifa’s grandmother is concerned. "She pauses while speaking and forgets whatever she wants to say. She cries and seems to be shocked,” she says. “Her sister and our entire family have been affected.”

The 7.5 magnitude earthquake ravaged areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing some 115 people in Afghanistan and damaging or destroying more than 18,500 homes, leaving families homeless, stranded, and in shock. In Pakistan, 280 people were killed in the quake. 

As part of a coordinated emergency response, UNICEF and its partners have been providing psychosocial support sessions for children in need, and distributing blankets, winter clothing and other relief items as freezing temperatures engulf the mountainous region. 

Addressing trauma

Many schools in affected areas remained empty for days after the earthquake, partly because of the risks caused by damaged infrastructure, but also because students were scared to return.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2015/AEP
Dr. Wasel Shah Ibrahimi, a trainer with Tabish, a social-health education organization supported by UNICEF, explains the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder to students, parents and teachers at psychosocial support sessions at Bibi Hajerah High School.

“A large number of students and teachers were shocked and traumatized by the earthquake,” says Dr. Wasel Shah Ibrahimi, a trainer with Tabish, a social health education organization supported by UNICEF, which has been leading the peer support sessions at the Bibi Hajera High School.

Part of his work entails visiting students and their families at home to guage their mental and psychological well-being, inform them about available care options, and encourage children to return to school and resume their studies. Individual attention is also provided for children who need it most.

But it is essential that education go on for the students of Taloqan. Ms. Najiba Afzal, Principal of the Bibi Hajera School, one of the largest in this provincial capital, confirmed that the school is moving to a new building.

“We hope, by going to the new building, the students and teachers forget their painful memories and resume their studies,” she says.

Protecting children and families

As winter sets in, lack of shelter and warm clothing has been a priority for relief efforts in the remote quake-affected areas. Children are the most vulnerable in such situations, and they have the most urgent needs.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2015/AEP
Afghan families receive blankets, winter clothes, hygiene kits and other relief items in Taloqan.

When the earthquake hit, 7-year-old Najib was sleeping on the upper floor of his house. His mother, Bibi Khatum, was not able to save him in time.

“I wish I would die instead of him,” Ms. Khatum says. “I was at home washing clothes, and suddenly the house started shaking. I took one of my children and started running. The moment I stepped out of the gate, the building collapsed, and everything we had went under dust and rocks. I couldn’t rescue my older child.”

Ms. Khatum and her family now live in an open area, but as temperatures drop below freezing, relief supplies are more essential than ever.

Along with providing psychosocial support, UNICEF and partners have been distributing blankets, winter clothes, and hygiene kits, as well as tents for shelter and schools and other relief items. In cooperation with the Red Cross/Red Crescent and the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority, it has provided assistance to around 2,500 families (more than 17,000 people) in affected areas in the north and east of the country.

For families like Ms. Khatum’s, these items are a lifeline to make it through the hard months ahead.

“The weather is getting colder, and we could not pass the winter without these things,” she says.



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