By France Hurtubise
A group of very lively Nepalese children are sitting inside a Canadian Red Cross tent. They are, as always, smiling and seemingly peaceful, though it is hard to see through to the minds of such young people who have lived through two earthquakes. Some have lost their home, or lost contact with family, or maybe lost a friend.
For the moment their dark, shiny eyes quietly scan cards they are holding in their hands. Each card bears a message of hope and friendship. “Hope you are well”, “Thinking of you”. To get here, those cards have travelled half way around the world, from the east Pacific shore city of Victoria, Canada, to Dhunche, Nepal. From sea level all the way up to this magical place where one can see the eternal snows on some of the mightiest peaks of the Himalayas.
Lisa Anne Pierce, a Canadian delegate from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said: “My son Elliott attends Victor Brodeur School in Victoria. When his teacher found out that I would be deploying to Nepal, she asked her grade-5 class to write cards that I could take with me and share with children here. Just to let them know that in Canada, so many people are thinking of them and supporting them from a distance.”
The tent, next to the health post in Dhunche, has been set-up specifically for Nepalese children on a narrow plateau on the side of a mountain. The young lads come and go as they wish. Inside, there are toys, activities, and a trained Red Cross volunteer to accompany them throughout the day. It is all part of a recognized programme called Psychological Social Services which supports victims psychologically, fostering child protection and preventing gender-based violence. The delegate in charge of the programme, Angelo Leo, sums up the number one priority in Dhunche as getting life back to normal again before the approaching monsoon.
Angelo has one thing in common with the children he is trying to help. Like them, he has lived through both earthquakes. A resident of Vancouver, he happened to be on vacation in Nepal en route to a three-day meditation retreat when the first quake struck. On the internet, he saw the urgent appeal from the Canadian Red Cross for delegates to set-up an Emergency Response Unit (ERU). He didn’t have to think twice. “You can count me in,” he wrote. “I’m already there!”
His whole professional life, Angelo has worked as a nurse specialized in community mental health. Working with adults, he has covered trauma, stress management and violence prevention. As an educator for staff in a specialized mental health centre, he used his knowledge of cognitive behaviour as a tool in group therapy. He says his experience in teaching mental health abroad gave him a valuable insight into the importance of local understanding. “We must first consider the needs of the local community and not replicate what is done in other countries,” he said. “Every situation is different.”
When he arrived in Dhunche with the team, wanting to reach the children who might have been traumatized by the earthquakes and recurrent tremors, Angelo organized a two-day training session for the teachers from six local schools, and for Red Cross volunteers. The main subjects areas were stress and coping, grief and loss, psychological first aid, and community-based support.
Achok Garong, Nepalese coordinator for one of the Highlands Elementary School, was instrumental in the organization of the training. He gathered the teachers from Dhunche and neighbouring villages. The day before the second earthquake, the PSS delegate had completed one day of training with the teachers. When the quake struck, Garong focused on techniques taught during training: “We put in practice what we had just learned during the day. It worked. We told the children to stay calm, and they did.”
The programme has been carried out in cooperation with the IFRC and the Nepal Red Cross Society. The primary focus is on children and teens. A helpline was installed to respond to their needs.
Today, the children are puzzled by the cards with messages in English from a country they have never imagined hearing from, and even less linking with. And who knows, when the immediate crisis has passed, they may want to reply.