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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

A creative escape from tsunami trauma in Malaysia

© UNICEF 2006/Malaysia/Nettleton
Nor Soffi sits on her motorbike with her younger sister. Soffi attends an art workshop for teenagers affected by the tsunami.

By Steve Nettleton

LANGKAWI, Malaysia, December 2006 – Nor Soffi binti Abu Bakar, 16, is a regular participant in an art workshop for young people affected by the tsunami. The workshop was originally conceived by UNICEF and its partner organization EMPOWER as a place for youth to learn to open up and deal with the impact of the tsunami.

But two years after the tsunami, she finds that her drawings are less about the tsunami than about other problems in her life.

At one art workshop in November 2006, Soffi was busy drawing a sign warning against using drugs. She finds inspiration and comfort taking part in the sessions.

“I enjoy these workshops because I get an opportunity to express what I’m feeling inside my heart and I feel lighter by being able to do that, by being able to express the problems I have through art,” said Soffi.

© UNICEF 2006/Malaysia/Nettleton
A participant in an art workshop, sponsored by UNICEF and its partner organization, EMPOWER, discusses her drawing about preventing the spread of HIV.

Addressing mental health

Soffi’s parents’ seaside restaurant was swept away by the waves in December 2004. Though no one in the family was hurt, the loss traumatized her mother and father, and left them without their main source of income.

They have since opened a smaller snack bar close to a fishing boat harbour on the Langkawi coast. Soffi spends her free time after school washing dishes, serving drinks and doing whatever she can to help out with the business.

For her own emotional well-being, she turns to drawing.

In the aftermath of the disaster, UNICEF and EMPOWER found that children and young people in Malaysia’s hardest-hit areas, Kota Kuala Muda, Langkawi and Penang, showed signs of distress that were not openly acknowledged in the broader community.

© UNICEF 2006/Malaysia/Nettleton
A local artist discusses a drawing exercise to participants at a UNICEF-sponsored art workshop for youth on the island of Langkawi in Malaysia.

Youth camp, theatre and art

As a result, they organized children’s workshops and youth camps to enhance leadership skills, motivation, communication and the confidence of young people, as well as provide them with a positive environment in which to develop their own projects.

In 2006, the two organizations went a step further, establishing theatre and art workshops to give youths a creative outlet for discussing issues they care about. Many teenagers say the disaster has become less and less relevant. For them, HIV and AIDS, sexuality and violence are more pressing concerns.

“We realized that if we keep dwelling on the trauma, it’s not going to be an avenue for them to move on,” said EMPOWER Project Officer Thency Gunasekaran. “In a lot of our activities we look not only at this art therapy aspect. We actually incorporated sessions where these young people could speak up, so they could identify the issues that concern their lives.”

With pencils and crayons, young tsunami survivors in Malaysia are leaving the past behind and tackling issues they see as a critical to the rest of their lives.

Indra Kumari Nadchatram contributed to this story.




November 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on art programmes that help children cope with trauma left by the tsunami.
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