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Chinese children take the first steps to recovery after earthquake

UNICEF Image: China, earthquake, UNICEF
© UNICEF video
About 1,000 children from earthquake-affected parts of Sichuan are now living on a university campus in Chengdu.

By Xu Xin

CHENGDU, China, 29 May 2008 – More than two weeks after a devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province toppled schools, wiped out towns and killed an estimated 67,000 people, children in the worst-hit areas are still experiencing the staggering psychosocial aftershocks.

About 1,000 students from boarding schools in surrounding counties are now living at the Southwest University of Finance and Economics of Chengdu. Information about parents and relatives occasionally flows in through the iron-barred entrance, leaving some in tears with news that loved ones are alive.

Meanwhile, others are crushed by the terrible absence of news about missing family members.

Children and teachers stressed
“The children we met in the university look exhausted and stressed,” said UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Chen Xuefeng. “They come from different schools in the quake zone, and have just arrived after trekking for days on mountain roads, seeking shelter in the forests to escape frightening aftershocks.”

Ms. Chen has just returned from UNICEF's recent mission with Chinese Government officials supporting efforts to help children recover from post-earthquake psychosocial stress.

“A 14-year-old girl is called to the entrance to meet her grandparents, only to be told that her mother has died in the quake,” said Ms. Chen recalling the scene at the university. “She is so overwhelmed.”

The mission also found teachers on the edge of breaking down. Some of them have lost their own family members in the deadly quake and are too stressed to meet their students’ needs.

Coordinated interventions
On 27 May, UNICEF specialists and psychologists offered an initial training session for volunteers who care for relocated children. The children were invited to join in group games and interactive play, during which they were motivated to express themselves freely.

© UNICEF video
Games and other group activities are helping young survivors of the earthquake in China deal with the emotional distress they have experienced.

“In fact, about 90 per cent of child survivors can be naturally resilient and return to their normal life through psychosocial support, like re-unification with family members, recreational activities, schooling and other community activities,” explained UNICEF China’s Chief of Child Rights, Kirsten Di Martino. “Only 10 per cent who are severely traumatized need to be referred to psychological counselling or special therapy.”

Caregivers and communities will have to give these children more psychosocial support to help relieve their stress, using group activities such as games and schooling.

“We are concerned about the quality and duplication of psychosocial intervention from different and ‘migrating’ voluntary social workers,” said Ms. Kirsten. “In some cases, a child survivor is accessed by two different groups of social workers in one day, which may bring more trauma to the child. The intervention should be consistent and sustainable.”

Child safety concerns
Among quake survivors living in orphanages and social welfare institutions, children are mixed with elders and the disabled in overcrowded shelters.

“Children are under great stress,” said UNICEF Representative and UN Disaster Management Team Chair Dr. Yin Yin Nwe. “One young boy I met had lost both parents and could only state the English name and no other facts about his life.

“All partners concerned with protecting these children have a huge task in front of them,” added Dr. Nwe.




28 May 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on efforts to help heal the psychological wounds from the Sichuan earthquake. 
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