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July 21, 2009

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Friendly Spaces help kids recover from quake trauma

THE National Working Committee on Women and Children and UNICEF have joined forces to set up 40 Child Friendly Spaces throughout Sichuan to help children heal from the emotional scars left behind by last year's destructive earthquake.

Si Yu is singing a nursery rhyme with her friends at Child Friendly Spaces in the makeshift community of Yongxing in Qushan Township of Beichuan County in Sichuan Province.

The girl's mother, Zhang Ziju, is sitting on a plastic stool, wiping tears of relief.

"Look," she says, "my daughter is laughing."

This is rare for the seven-year-old girl, who has lived through last year's devastating earthquake.

"More than a year has passed since the May 12 earthquake," the 36-year-old mother says. "Si Yu seldom smiles or talks to anyone, and she will not sleep without the light on."

When the 8.0-magnitude quake struck Sichuan last year, Si was buried for two days in the debris of her kindergarten building.

The quake left more than 87,000 people dead or missing, and as many as 5,000 of the dead were from the Qiang ethnic group in Beichuan County of Mianyang City. Si and her mother are from the Qiang minority.

Among the dead was Si's grandmother, who had raised her since birth. At the time of the quake, Si's parents were working in other cities as migrant workers.

An hour's ride or so from Qushan, downtown Beichuan was reduced to rubble. It has become a ghost town with boarded-up buildings and dust-choked streets reflecting the light of the mid-summer sun.

Zheng Li, a psychologist, says the quake left more than material destruction.

"The quake didn't just destroy these children's schools and houses," Zheng says. "It inflicted deep emotional and psychological wounds."

Zheng was hired by the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to work at Child Friendly Spaces.

Child Friendly Spaces has played a role in monitoring children's emotional health in the aftermath of the disaster. Children identified with serious problems are referred to specialists to receive individual treatment.

More than 2,000 children in Beichuan lost their lives in the quake, according to Mu Zhiyan, deputy chairperson of the local women's federation.

Zheng says that many young quake survivors and their families are still living under challenging conditions, struggling to attain some security and certainty.

Si is a good example. After she finished her nursery rhyme, her mother took her to Zheng, who spent about 50 minutes with the girl playing toy bricks together.

"She constantly remade whatever she had already completed, revealing uncertainty deep in her heart," Zheng says.

Eventually, Si built a model with no flowers and trees. Instead it had ferocious beasts trying to capture little animals like rabbits and ducks.

"All these signs indicate that she remains in a state of panic," Zheng says.

Child Friendly Spaces is a UNICEF-initiated project aimed at helping traumatized children heal, and resume normal lives. It has provided a safe haven where quake-affected children come together to play and participate in recreational and educational activities in dedicated spaces.

Pu Yongjian looks quite delighted when singing with new friends in the makeshift community. "I like to come and play here. You don't feel fear when you play," says the five-year-old cheerful boy.

It's hard to think that the quake took away his best friends and playmates - his three cousins.

"After, with no one to keep him company, he became silent and timid," says Pu's mother, Wang Xuefen, 39.

Wang says her son is "horror-struck and wild when it's dark or windy or there's lightening. I don't know how to comfort him. I felt like I was losing my son, even though he survived the earthquake."

40 Spaces

Nevertheless, things are getting better now that Pu participates in the activities at Spaces.

"In the evening, he is able to go to the toilet without me, and he strikes up conversations with other children, even those he doesn't know," Wang says.

After the earthquake, the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), in collaboration with the National Working Committee on Women and Children under the State Council, set up 40 Child Friendly Spaces in six of the heaviest-hit cities and prefectures, mostly in rural communities. So far, 65,291 children aged 0-18 have participated in the programs.

In Spaces, children learn new skills such as computers, drawing and handcrafts. Parents learn how to interact with their children.

In Hengxi Village's Child Friendly Spaces in Lushan County of Ya'an City, children and parents are playing the game "A Little Frog Looking for his Mama." The children are encircled by their parents and they chant: "Underneath a lotus leaf lies a little frog. Wow, wow, wow, the frog is looking for mama."

At the end of the rhyme, parents kiss and hug their children when the children find their parents.

"Hugging and kissing are normal to urbanites. But it's difficult for rural parents to kiss or hug their child, especially in front of others," says Ren Xiaomei, head of this branch of Spaces. "This activity is meant to enhance intimacy between parents and children, so that children may gain a sense of security and certainty."

All activities in Spaces are designed to boost children's self-esteem, and parents' confidence in their quake-affected, vulnerable children.

Creative ability

In the town of Hongbai, Shifang City, about 80 kilometers from Beichuan, Zhao Yuting, 12, is making a pencil holder out of old poker cards.

"We're turning waste packaging into something pretty and useful. Isn't that great?" she asks, as she waves the colorful holder to her peers.

Zhao, who loves tap dancing, says she is one of six dancers who survived the quake. "We were having a rehearsal in the classroom when the earthquake jolted our school." The rest of the 20 or so members of her dancing group died.

"I didn't know before that I could make things like this," Zhao says proudly, showing her work. "Someday I might run a shop selling my own handcrafts."

Zhao says that making a pencil holder or a basket with waste material is not just a process of discovering creative ability. "It's more like a process through which I've learned that environmental protection is not something out of our reach. It's a matter of attitude and action."

Lian Shengqiong, head of the Spaces in Hongbai Township, says: "In addition to handcrafts, we also teach children practical skills like typing and standard Chinese."

It takes time for quake-affected children to recover from the catastrophe. But, says Si's mother, at least "my daughter knows how to smile again thanks to Child Friendly Spaces."


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