Slow but sure recovery

Updated: 2011-05-11 08:19

By Erik Nilsson and Huang Zhiling (China Daily)

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 Slow but sure recovery

Students of Leigu Primary School in Beichuan county play a game with Plan China's volunteers during a summer camp. Photos Provided to China Daily

 Slow but sure recovery

Plan China's volunteers sing a song for children living in Beichuan county's Yongxing temporary housing complex.

Rebuilding the physical infrastructure of areas destroyed by the 2008 quake in Sichuan has been far easier than restoring the confidence of the affected children. Erik Nilsson and Huang Zhiling report.

Editor's note: The nicknames, rather than the full names, of the children have been used in this story, in accordance with Plan International's child-protection policy.

In an instant that seemed to last an eternity, the children's schools collapsed on them, as many of their houses did on their families. In every sense, the Wenchuan earthquake brought their worlds crashing down on May 12, 2008.

But the buildings of Sichuan province have proven easier to repair than the psyches of its people - and especially of its children.

"I was so scared and worried about my family," says 13-year-old Qian Qian, who was in Qushan Primary School in Sichuan province's Beichuan county when the temblor struck.

"When I found out so many people had died and our houses were destroyed, I felt very sad."

Qian is among hundreds of children traumatized by the seismic violence of the 8.0-magnitude earthquake, which left about 90,000 dead or missing. While the rescue and rebuilding efforts have been celebrated as exceptional successes, the country hasn't yet developed the capacity to psychologically and socially rehabilitate traumatized disaster survivors.

That's why the NGO Plan International's China branch started a 790,000-yuan ($121,650) community-based psychosocial support program to assist 600 traumatized children in Sichuan's Beichuan, Anxian and Mianzhu counties.

"Children are psychologically more fragile than adults, and without intervention, the post-quake trauma will hurt their development," Plan China's director of child communications Liu Zhongliang says.

"They need to communicate with people they trust and participate in more social activities to escape the disaster's shadow."

Withdrawal is one of the most typical symptoms of the quake zone's emotionally wounded children. Others are depression, night terrors and an obsession with loss of loved ones, Liu says.

"It was quite a while before I wanted to talk to anyone. I felt alone," 12-year-old Qushan student Ling Ling says.

"But after participating in some of the (Plan) activities, I wanted to talk and play more with the other kids."

Qushan Primary School teacher Liu Jue says it took more than a year for the children to begin behaving as they had before the disaster.

"Many children, especially girls, who were injured or lost family didn't want to engage and play with others," he says. "They especially didn't want to talk about earthquakes."

The teacher understands why, he says, recalling that day's horror.

"We hid beneath the door frame. Some of the children were injured by falling roof tiles, and some were buried when the roof collapsed. We started digging to save them," the teacher recalls.

"We dug out one child who was seriously injured and rushed her to the hospital but it was too late. She died."

Liu Jue recalls the children were "very, very frightened".

"Some were wounded. They didn't know what happened to their parents. After they reached the safety of the playground, they started to cry."

Plan's disaster management project assistant Liu Lingling explains the quake's trauma is unique.

"Compared to other traumatizing events, the earthquake is large, destructive and uncontrollable, and its psychological impact is deep seated and large scale," she says.

That is why Plan decided to approach rehabilitation through psychosocial support, Liu Lingling says.

"Psychosocial support is different from psychological counseling. The focus is to provide children with social, communication and entertainment opportunities and platforms to heal their psychological trauma."

Liu Jue believes it was largely Plan's rehabilitation programs that enabled the children to recover.

"The activities have had a positive influence on the children's mental health and socialization. They barely show any signs of post-quake trauma now."

Ling says the activities have given her new confidence, especially the Colorful Life Arts and Crafts Competition.

"At first, I didn't want to do it," she says. "But then the volunteers told us a story and played games with us and I said to myself, 'I'll do it' and it made me very happy."

Xiao Qiang says he also enjoyed the art contest. "These activities not only make me happy but also teach me a lot," the 13-year-old Qushan student says. "And I feel warm when I play with the nice aunts and uncles (the Plan volunteers)."

Liu Jue points out that volunteers can interact with children in ways teachers can't, because they're younger and not the same kinds of authority figures.

"The most fun I've had (since the quake) is playing games with the volunteers," 13-year-old Qushan student Xiao Yan says.

But it was a rough start, says 23-year-old volunteer Zhou Junmin, a medical student in the provincial capital Chengdu, who worked in Beichuan's Yongxing temporary housing complex.

"At first the children were unresponsive, unwilling to engage and difficult to organize," Zhou says.

A major reason the project succeeded, he believes, is that it was created using a community-driven approach.

"We seek the views of the children in developing the games, and learning to draw and sing and other activities," he says.

Zhou recalls one young girl who made remarkable progress through the program.

"She was an obedient little girl who didn't show love or anger. She was lost in her own world and didn't communicate at all," Zhou recalls.

"We gave her extra attention and worked to find the exact causes of her state Through face-to-face, heart-to-heart communication, we encouraged her to participate in the activities and have seen her become more stable and optimistic."

Plan members say they took precautions to make sure the children didn't feel as if they were receiving special treatment.

"Many (other groups') well-intentioned programs were meant to help the kids but ended up actually hurting them," Liu Zhongliang says.

Some organizations, he says, failed to respect the children's wishes or made them talk about the earthquake in ways that reopened emotional wounds without benefit.

Zhou says this could be seen in the temporary housing areas.

"There were many other volunteer groups who would come to give the kids gifts, and buy them snacks and pose for photos with them," Zhou says.

"Not only does this not substantially help but also it can instill bad habits We have to let the children return to normal states of mind, to make them feel like there is no difference between them and other kids."

Liu Zhongliang believes this is partly because the country has yet to fully develop capabilities to respond to the psychological devastation arising from catastrophes.

"National and international organizations in China are not mature in their understanding of a disaster's impact on children," he says.

"Plan China is no exception. This is an exploratory pro-ject in that regard."

But many of the children who have participated in Plan's projects have not only been able to move beyond their traumatic pasts but also toward brighter futures.

Now, they talk about dreams.

Xiao Hua wants to travel the world. Xiao Qiang wants to become a videogame designer. Ling hopes to be a scientist.

Xiao Hua explains the changes of the last three years that have enabled her and her classmates to look ahead.

"After the quake, we were living in the temporary houses and things weren't very good," she says.

"But we found joy with the help of good people. And we've moved into new houses and have returned to the happy lives we had before."


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