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Travel Diary: Dr. Karen Hein reflects on Post-Tsunami India (Feb. 4)

Dr. Karen Heinis a member of the Christian Children's Fund Board of Directors and is also a pediatrician.She volunteered to go to India to help CCF in tsunami-affected areas. This is Dr. Hein's travel diary - reflecting on the images of devastation, recovery and beauty in the midst of unimaginable loss.

Feb 4: Child-centered spaces emerging from the rubble.

Hein_BioWe've spent the past four days in Child Centered Spaces (CCS) set up by CCF in Chennai (Madras) villages severely affected by the tsunami. Ralph and I are adding health assessment components to the incredibly effective support programs in these spaces. The situations range from people still living in rubble on the sites of their destroyed villages to new temporary quarters (tents or palm/thatch dwellings) constructed farther back from the sea.

The CCS is either a tent or area where children gather for various programs. In the morning, they receive supplemental food (hard-boiled eggs, bananas, chick peas), then there are various times for playing games with toys supplied by CCF (jump ropes, rubber rings, soccer balls, Indian board games) or if no formal schooling is possible, educational sessions for kids of various ages.

There are special sessions for very young (0-5 yrs) or older kids (5-10 yrs) or adolescents (10-18 yrs) to help them sort through their experiences and resume some semblance of normalcy. For example, yesterday we joined a circle of young kids on the beach near the water. The CCF staff had a series of games and exercises to help them deal with their fear of being near the sea.

The older kids had been working on a little dramatic performance in which they acted out various aspects of the tsunami including being trees knocked over and people dying on the beach. The drama continued, showing scenes of children returning to school and a contest in which kids were able to write about and share their abilities to cope and rebuild their lives and community. The drama ended by their receiving a prize from their district leaders and having a celebration in which they all got up and danced. It was so incredible to see their energy funneled in these ways and to see how connected they were to each other ... older to younger ... and adults to kids---despite the despair and loss, the sense of togetherness and mutual help is palpable.

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We were welcomed into the scene and soon I was dancing and part of the circle. Later, I distributed the food supplement to 150 kids---they all lined up, sat quietly, then with the help of CCF workers, each washed their little hands and came with a plate for their 2 tablespoons of chickpeas and a hard boiled egg (dished out by Ralph). I focused on each little face, feeling more that I now know what we are doing here.

 

Our official "job" is to help craft age-specific health assessments to be incorporated into the training of workers in these Child Centered Spaces. CCF has a terrific manual and training sessions based on their other emergency relief work in conflict zones or previous natural disasters, but now adapted specifically to India relating to the particulars of this post-tsunami situation here. CCF has geared up by expanding its staff to include Indian volunteers, either community leaders, young people or folks from other Indian aid groups who have suspended their lives and careers to help out temporarily.

These are some of the most effective, selfless, dedicated folks I've ever met. The head of the CCF South India zone and some others are sleeping in the office so that they can keep the cost down and be available 24 hours a day.

In some villages, energy is shifting towards repairing boats and planning more permanent communities but progress is a variable thing. In one destroyed village, as I wandered through the rubble, I saw pages of school books sticking out of downed palm trees, and looked up at a 50-foot water tower where a boat was found suspended from the top!

In the midst of this scene of utter devastation was one young man living in the shell of his old house. He had laundry hanging from a line and was sweeping the area in front of his missing door. He was silent as was I. The rest of the village had moved to new temporary tent dwellings, but he remained, rooted to some inner memory of a life or family that existed just 5 weeks ago.

We spent yesterday at Pullicut Island, a very remote community of 1,000 families located on an island (a sand bar really) off the coast north of Chennai. The lake that separated the island from the mainland used to be fresh water and filled with fish and good drinking and irrigation water. The tsunami made it all brackish, so now the island, surrounded by water on all sides, has no fresh water at all. There was no health facility or services before the tsunami and few health workers are willing to travel such a distance to supply any, so CCF is thinking of ways to both assess and provide health care along with the child-centered spaces.

CCF heard today that they got a grant to help the women develop new income-generating skills so that they are not solely relying on the fishermen, since it will be weeks, months or possibly longer before they can resume fishing. People are afraid to eat the fish since the tsunami [because they fear the fish have fed on human flesh], and some areas have disturbed ecology so it might not even be possible.

Our Tamil colleague, Babu, is a saint. On the way back to the city last night we stopped at a drug rehabilitation residential treatment center he founded, and met with 17 young men who are living there and learning new trades while they are in a drug-free supportive environment.

It was a reminder that as we focus on the unfolding post-tsunami drama in one tiny bit of a continent, India goes on ... a billion people are getting on with their lives. And for now, Ralph and I are just dots along with the others, doing what we can each day.

Next Entry: Feb. 22 & #187;