Staff try to heal tsunami trauma

28th January 2005 at 00:00
Sri Lanka

The rubble has been cleared from the schoolyard at Sujatha College in Galle on Sri Lanka's wrecked southern coast. New exercise books, registers and uniforms are being donated and a full timetable will resume next week.

But the emotional impact of the loss of more than 250 of the 1,200 pupils may take much longer to overcome.

For the last month schools across south-east Asia affected by the tsunami have been preparing for the return of thousands of young children.

But aid agencies warn that it could be months before the true scale of children's emotional needs are known.

"We have to be seen to be strong in front of students, but most of the teachers here have lost at least one student - in my class two of my best students were killed," said Manel Perera, who has taught at the school for four years. "It is very hard for some of us to deal with without help."

In parts of Sri Lanka worst hit by the Boxing Day disaster, the United Nations Children's Fund is training two teachers in every school to identify pupils most in need of trauma counselling.

Cindy Dubble, who helped train child counsellors in the wake of civil war in Uganda and Sierra Leone, said pupils could be showing the emotional effects - including becoming withdrawn - more than a year after the disaster. This could place a huge strain on teachers already struggling to cope with the death of colleagues, pupils and the large-scale destruction of school buildings.

"With a lot of children it is still much too early to deal with the trauma, it is only when they start to feel safe that they will begin to open up and teachers will often be the first ones they will turn to."

Teachers will be shown how to spot signs of post-traumatic stress.

These include children being frightened by loud noises, changing behaviour patterns or becoming dependent on a teacher following the death of a family member.

In Galle, Unicef is training 100 medical graduates to act as interim counsellors to visit displacement camps and schools, identifying children left traumatised by the disaster.

The graduates are all volunteers, working with Unicef for three months before taking internships at medical centres and hospitals around Sri Lanka - a move replicated across the country.

The Sri Lankan government estimates 77,161 children at 163 schools were affected in some way by the disaster.

Friday MAGAZINE 6

To help Unicef's emergency education work, click on TES Appeal at www.unicef.org.uk

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