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Giving young people in Malaysia a creative escape from tsunami trauma

© UNICEF Malaysia/2006/Nadchatram
UNICEF and Empower art workshops in Langkawi provide Soffi and her friends a creative outlet to better cope with their tsunami-related trauma and the challenges of growing up.

By Steve Nettleton

LANGKAWI, Malaysia; 26 December 2006 – For Nor Soffi binti Abu Bakar, tsunami recovery comes with washing dishes and serving drinks. Her parents’ seaside restaurant was swept away by the waves in December 2004. Though no one in the family was hurt, the loss traumatised 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, 16, spends her free time after school doing whatever she can to help out with the business.

For her own emotional wellbeing, she turns to drawing. She 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 organisation, Empower, as a place for youth to learn to open up and deal with the impact of the tsunami.

Youth leadership

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

As a result, UNICEF and Empower organised children’s workshops and youth leadership camps to enhance leadership skills, motivation, communication skills and the confidence of young people, as well as to provide the youth with a positive environment and space to develop their own projects.

© UNICEF Malaysia/2006/Nadchatram
Soffi presents her drawing titled "No Entry: Drugs" to friends at the art workshop.

In 2006, the two organisations went a step further, establishing theater and art workshops to give young people a creative outlet to discuss issues they care about. Two years after the tsunami, many teenagers say the disaster has become less and less relevant. For them, HIV and AIDS, drugs, sexuality and violence are more pressing concerns.

Finding inspiration

“We realized that if we keep dwelling on the trauma, it’s not going to be an avenue for them to move on,” said Thency Gunasekaran, project officer for Empower. “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 what are the issues that concern their lives.”

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

“I enjoy these workshops because when I come, 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.

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


With reporting from Indra Kumari Nadchatram






UNICEF correspondent Steve Nettleton reports on art programs that help children express themselves about new challenges to their life.
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Broadcast-quality video on demand from The Newsmarket 


21 December 2006:
UNICEF Representative to Malaysia, Gaye Phillips, discusses UNICEF's work in tsunami-affected communities across the country.
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Tsunami 2-Year Update


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