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Feature: Struggle for certainty and security
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18:50, July 11, 2009

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Si Yu, a girl of the Qiang ethnic aged seven, is chanting a nursery rhyme with her friends at the Child-friendly Spaces in the Yongxing makeshift community in Qushan Township, Beichuan County.

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

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

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

When the 8.0-magnitude quake struck southwest China's Sichuan Province last year, Si Yu 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 Beichuan area of Mianyang City.

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

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

"The quake didn't just destroy these children's schools and houses. More devastatingly, it inflicted deep emotional and psychological wounds," says Zheng Li, a local psychological consultant.

Zheng was hired by the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences to work at the Child-friendly Spaces in the makeshift community.

The Spaces play a role in monitoring children's emotional states 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 chair of the local women's federation.

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

Take the case of Si Yu. After she finished her part of chanting a nursery rhyme her mother took her to Zheng Li. Zheng spent about 50 minutes with Si Yu, playing toy bricks together.

"She (Si Yu) constantly made over whatever she had already completed, revealing uncertainty deep in her heart," Zheng says.

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

"All these indicate that she remains a state of panic."

The 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 the 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 from the makeshift community. "I like to come play here. You don't feel fear when you play," says the five-year-old boy cheerfully.

It's hard to think that the quake took away his best friends and playmates --- his three cousins. "After, with no one keep him company, he became silent and timid," says Yongjian's mother, WangXuefen, 39.

She 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."

Nevertheless, things are getting better now that Yongjian participates in the activities in the Child-friendly 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," says Wang.

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 the Spaces, children learn new skills: 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." 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 behavior 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 the Spaces.

"This activity is meant to enhance the intimacy between parents and children, so that children may gain a sense of security and certainty."

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

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 waves the colorful holder to her peers.

Zhao, who loves tap dance, 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 can make things like this," Zhao says proudly, showing her work. "Someday I might run a shop selling my own-designed handcraft."

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 children's reach. It's a matter of attitude and action towards environment."

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

"These kids don't have access to computers. They attend crowded, makeshift schools, where very few computers are available. They come to the Spaces after school and acquire basic knowledge about computers.

As for self-esteem, Xiao Daipeng has apparently found his. "I come here every day to play football, and read, science books in particular," says the nine-year-old boy who lost his right leg in the quake.

"I know I look different, but I don't feel different from other kids," he uses his crutch to kick the ball with another boy whose left leg was amputated.

"I don't have to use this though," Daipeng raises his crutch. "I have an artificial leg. But it's not very comfy when the weather is not good, overcast or raining," then he is off, running after the ball.

In the Spaces, he says he has learned a lot from cooperating with his peers to things like smiling at people you first meet them.

"Our teacher in the Spaces says, if you smile at life, life will smile back at you."

It takes time for these quake-affected children to recover entirely from the catastrophe. But at least, says Si Yu's mother, despite the fact that she remains silent much of the time, "my daughter knows how to smile now, thanks to the Child-friendly Spaces."

Source: Xinhua

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