I want first to give you an update on our efforts to get food and shelter to the 1,000 orphaned and displaced children in Aba. The roads are now closed. We asked our colleagues at the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to see if we can possibly bring the desperately-needed goods in by helicopter. A couple of hours ago, moments after the latest giant aftershock, we got good news – a helicopter for Aba tomorrow! More soon -
Yesterday morning, when I arrived in Chengdu, I was invited by MCA to visit some of the hardest-hit sites. We visited Dujiangyan – very close to the epicenter. It was a painful day (I’ve put a few photos on our website – some just too sad to write about) but I was also heartened to see both how quickly the government has come in and tried to take care of the basics – building thousands of temporary shelters and schools – and how the people have come together to help each other. A sign in one of the tent cities reads, “The earthquake has destroyed our homes but it can’t break our spirit.”
Today we visited Mianyang Zitong CWI. A 6.4 aftershock struck moments before we arrived at the orphanage. All of the children were rushed outside and, in what’s become routine now, they all sat calmly in little chairs. There were 8 new arrivals – all of them had lost their parents. It seems they are not brought to the orphanages until officials are fairly certain that they will not be claimed by extended family. One little boy told us in a matter-of-fact way that both his parents were killed. Ma Lang, HTS’ director of child development, after days assisting the displaced children staying at the Jiuzhou stadium observed, “From the volunteers’ and counselors’ perspectives, the children’s most common signs of being traumatized included insomnia, nightmares, tearfulness, indifference, and refusing to eat. In the first few days, the volunteers in the stadium’s ‘inner circle (a holding place for separated children) had to search bathrooms and corridors for children who hid there and refused to eat. The volunteers told me it was heartbreaking to see the children’s eyes and persuade them that they should eat.”
We visited the “inner circle” at Jiuzhou stadium today. Almost all of the children who had not yet been identified by family members had been transferred to children’s shelters. The Mianyang Civil Affairs director told us that many, many children had been reunited – if not with their parents, then with extended families. One of our colleagues at the MCA told us that of the 200 children who’d been brought to shelter at the Chengdu Medical College, only 18 had not been reunited with extended family. Today we met a girl who has become famous in China because she was interviewed on television by Wen JiaBao. It was believed her parents had died. He tried to comfort her. Soon after, her parents were located. Although they haven’t yet been able to get to Mianyang to pick her up, today we met one happy little girl. The media has been making much of the idea of thousands of orphans. Our friends at MCA are not certain this is true and, to be honest, the situation is still too fluid to pin down the numbers. There are certainly many, many children with uncertain status. And they are traumatized and very much need consistent, caring support.
Provincial CAB (Civil Affairs Bureau) has begun the process of sending displaced children to structurally-sound colleges, military bases, welfare institutions, and other facilities. In less-stable areas, where there are fears of flooding and environmental issues, children housed in some temporary facilities are being transferred, yet again. Almost every orphanage has been advised that they should prepare for new arrivals. We met a few sad little faces yesterday at the Chengdu CWI; they are told to expect at least 100 more. The director at Zitong CWI told me the same thing. And so did the director at Guiyang CWI in Guizhou! The truth is, I believe, nobody yet knows.
These past days, the MCA has been working to draft recommendations for the care of displaced and orphaned children. I believe they will release an official statement soon. After two days traveling with MCA officials, one thing is clear – government is extremely concerned that every effort be made to reunite children with surviving relatives before adoption by non-relatives of orphaned children is even considered.
Meanwhile, tent schools are quickly being established wherever children are sheltered. There is a great desire to give the children the comfort of settling into a routine and regular attendance at school is seen as key. I visited a large tent city in Dujiangyan yesterday and the scene at 4:30 pm, with children streaming out of the temporary school toward dozens of waiting parents, was identical to that taking place in Chinese cities and towns every day.
HTS is working hard to complete its emergency relief efforts and turn its attention towards the effort for which it is better equipped – helping orphaned children begin to recover emotionally. By the end of the coming week, with your extraordinary generosity and the help of the amazing crew at Gung-Ho Films, we will have purchased and delivered more than 30 tons of tents, medicines, food and formula, children’s clothing, diapers and other infant supplies. With the helicopter to Aba and the purchase today of an emergency vehicle to transport orphaned and displaced children for 9 counties and one city, we will have answered every urgent request to take care of the children’s basic needs. Now we move on to try to address those needs no less urgent, but more elusive in every way.
Tomorrow (Monday, May 26) Half the Sky will launch its Sichuan Caregivers Training Project. I am thrilled, honored and very, very excited to tell you that HTS will work under the guidance of the foremost child trauma and bereavement specialists in the world, the National Center on School Trauma and Bereavement.Based at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, but comprising an international network of child trauma experts, the Center grew from the tragedy of the Terrorist Attacks of 9/11 and has served as a resource during hurricanes, school shootings, airline disasters and wars.
Together with NCSTB and MCA, HTS will hold a two-day planning workshop, June 3-4 in Chengdu. Three experts from the Center will lead the workshop. Attending will be four volunteer pediatric psychologists and psychiatric social workers, HTS team of 15 field supervisors, our program directors and officials from MCA and Sichuan CAB. That will be the start of what will likely be a long-term project to help children orphaned by the disaster to recover and rebuild their lives.
I’ll send along further details of the Caregivers Training Project soon. It’s almost midnight and I’m exhausted. I’ve had two days on the road through a landscape filled with aching sadness, determination and hope.