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At a glance: Dominican Republic

Volunteers provide psycho-social support to young Haitian quake survivors

‘Return to Happiness’

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0131/LeMoyne
A girl stands near rubble on a street heavily damaged by the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. Children who have experienced catastrophic situations display symptoms of psychological distress and need the kind of psycho-social support provided by the Return to Happiness programme.

By Jennifer Bakody

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic, 11 February 2010 – In hospital after hospital, and tent after tent, Haitian boys and girls with broken or amputated limbs lie on mattresses, unable to run around and play. Their casts are awkward and they’re crammed for space.

When asked how they feel in the aftermath of the 12 January earthquake in Haiti, many of them smile and say they’re fine. But no matter how resilient a child may be, nearly all children who have experienced catastrophic situations display symptoms of psychological distress. These symptoms may include intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, withdrawal and an inability to concentrate.

At the end of January, 58 young Haitian volunteers – students and professionals alike – crowded into three conference rooms at a hotel here in the Dominican capital to learn about the UNICEF-supported Return to Happiness programme, which is providing psycho-social support for Haiti’s children in need.

“Despite everything, life goes on. It has to,” said volunteer Fratz Ley Philippe. “That’s why I’m doing this. I want to be a useful part of my country’s reconstruction.”

© UNICEF Haiti/2010/Bakody
Haitian earthquake survivor Erika, 10, and her mother Karine find reasons to smile after receiving psycho-social support at an encampment in Fond Parisien.

Reclaiming childhood

For the past six months – in a project launched well before the Haiti earthquake – UNICEF Child Protection Specialist Angela Caba has been developing a set of manuals outlining a week-by-week schedule of activities designed to engage children who have gone through traumatic events. Those guidelines form the basis of Return to Happiness.

“Childhood must be a happy time for all children,” said Ms. Caba. “They should be playing games, active and enjoying healthy activities. Through playing, they are trained how to behave, how to protect themselves and how to solve their problems.

“Return to Happiness goes further than post-disaster emotional recovery,” she added. “It helps children to learn how to live their lives.”

Through the programme, a safe space is created for children to talk, create, colour, draw, sing and move. Qualified child psychologists and trainers use these tools to help the children to explore their emotions, values and dreams for the future. The children are also read stories that make mention of child rights. Wherever possible, family members and caregivers are encouraged to participate.

© UNICEF Haiti/2010/Bakody
Jutile Loiseau and Fratz Ley Philippe (second and third from left) are among approximately 180 Haitian volunteers trained by UNICEF to provide psycho-social support to young survivors of the 12 January earthquake.

'Everyone wants to help'

At the training in Santo Domingo, volunteer Jutile Loiseau expressed her need to help her country – especially its traumatized children.

A native of Haiti, Ms. Loiseau was trained as a doctor in the Dominican Republic and now works here. Back home, one of her cousins died in the earthquake last month. Her surviving family members saw their house and a business, 25 years in the making, destroyed in 15 minutes.

“After what’s happened, the world is mobilized,” she said. “Everyone wants to help, even if it’s just with a small piece of the puzzle. Often, we have the desire to help but we don’t know how. Now, UNICEF has given us the tools and the material to do so professionally.”

Over the coming days and weeks, government and aid agencies will call upon Ms. Loiseau, Mr. Philippe and about 180 other Creole-speakers thus far trained by the Return to Happiness programme to meet children’s psycho-social needs.

With nearly 40 per cent of all Haitians below 14 years of age, the earthquake crisis is a children’s emergency. Children need to be found, fed, kept healthy and safe. There is, however reason, to hope. Most children and adolescents will regain normal functioning once basic survival needs are met, safety and security have returned and developmental opportunities are restored – all within the context of their own family, community and society.



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