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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Education and play help children leave the tsunami behind

© UNICEF/HQ05-0165/Noorani
Simple games can help bring back children’s missing smiles.
BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, 7 February 2005 - In Batticaloa, children describe last month’s tsunami as ‘the lunge of a striking cobra.’ Snakes are a familiar danger to Sri Lanka’s youngsters,  and the devastating waves that struck last month seemed to transform their entire environment into a menace.

Education and play are proving to be among the best ways to help children heal, providing a semblance of normality and an important outlet for self-expression. UNICEF is now working with government authorities and NGO partners to mainstream psychosocial support and social protection services through the education system and community organizations.

 “The emotional needs of children are one of our main concerns,” says UNICEF Child Protection Officer, Christine Watkins. “Fortunately in Sri Lanka there were already many agencies working on these types of programs, so they were able to quickly mobilize and get children in camps involved in normal day-to-day activities.”

When the tsunami hit, UNICEF Sri Lanka immediately emptied its stores of children’s recreation kits and distributed them among relief camps. Another 760 kits are currently being sent out to over 30,000 children living in hundreds of relief camps.

These provisions are helping children cope with their terrible new reality. “I remember hearing people shouting and screaming, ‘the sea is coming to the village, the sea is coming to the village.’ We managed to run away and escape. Luckily all my family survived. After a while I went back with my parents to see what had become of our village, but most of it was gone,” says Vijaya, a slight, wistful child living in Batticaloa.

Fourteen-year-old Jayakumar was not so fortunate. He lost his mother and younger brother to the waves: “On that day I was playing next door at a neighbor’s house. I suddenly heard my mother screaming, ‘the sea is coming. Get out. Run away.’ Luckily I made my way up onto the roof of a neighbor’s house. When I thought it was safe, I returned to my home. My father and I couldn’t find my mother and little brother. Some people from the village later told us they had died in the tsunami.”

Without his mother and younger brother, Jayakakumar says he feels terribly alone. Like Vijaya, he wants to shut the memories of the tsunami out of his mind forever. He fears the sea and the prospect of ever returning to his home. ”When we play we forget about everything. It is good for us to forget the bad things,” says Jayakumar, with a hint of a smile.

Another effective therapy involves teaching children to draw the images in their minds. “Many of them are drawing the waves, the sea and people running,” says Christine Watkins. “It helps because it encourages children to unburden themselves rather than just sitting all alone keeping their feelings locked up inside. Play and games are also an opportunity for children to help support each other.”

UNICEF and partners have recently begun to train older children, like Vijaya, to take on leadership roles in the camps to foster a sense of empowerment and ensure that the play activities continue when facilitators are not there.

In the northeast, local organizations will extend this work to the larger community and in the south, medical interns are already being trained as volunteers to conduct similar activities alongside health authorities in Galle, Hambantota and Matara. “UNICEF is trying to discourage the idea of trauma counseling for them as such, “ says Christine Watkins. “Instead we see home grown community based approaches as pivotal to building up children’s recovery and resilience in the long run. The best kind of healing comes from the people themselves.”

“But ultimately,” says Christine Watkins, “the most effective form of therapy for all children after a catastrophic event such as this is to get them back to the classroom and to learning as quickly as possible.”




7 February 2005: UNICEF’s Thomas Nybo reports from Sri Lanka on how games and play help children cope.

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