Providing Safe Havens for Children in Pakistan’s Quake Zone
The sun was shining in the Kaghan valley on the morning of October 8, so primary school teacher Muhammad Shaukat held class in the schoolyard. He and his students were spared when the earth quivered at 8:45 a.m., crushing the school around instead of on top of them. Shaukat’s home—like those of almost all his neighbors in the valley—was also left in ruins, uninhabitable.
But this afternoon Shaukat’s 4-year-old son, Karamelahi, is smiling, one of a group of about 30 children busy taking part in normal, everyday “kid” activities at one of the International Rescue Committee’s “child friendly spaces” in nearby Balakot.
“Children suffered the most,” Shaukat says of the earthquake. “They were feeling traumatized…my child was shouting and crying and when the aftershocks came, he was also scared. When the helicopters came, he was scared. Now he’s not like that. He’s interested in coming to school. He insists on coming.”
The IRC child friendly spaces provide a safe, structured and welcoming environment for children in an emergency. In Balakot, where school buildings lay in rubble and many children lost classmates to the quake, activities at the center help children let go of pent-up stress and regain a sense of normalcy.
“Most of my friends were injured or killed,” says 10-year-old Momina Ahmed, who has been attending the Balakot center since it opened on November 1. Today she helped lead songs. At the child friendly spaces, “there’s nothing to fear,” she says.
Within an enclosed tent and sheltered outdoor area, children can draw, read storybooks, play games and sports and sing songs, away from the “tent cities” that have sprouted throughout Balakot in the aftermath of the quake.
“The children here have suffered a great disaster,” says Nasir Haleem, IRC’s child protection manager. “They’ve seen loved ones -- mothers, fathers, friends -- die right before them. When we came here they were reluctant to go back to school. What we’re providing is psychosocial support.”
“We don’t talk about what happened for fear of re-traumatizing the children,” adds IRC child protection advisor Qais Anwar. “But when the children try to express something, we encourage them. Expression through drama and drawing is healing. It leaves an impact on the person. These activities are healing in themselves.”
The IRC centers also provide the first exposure some children have to formal education. Sakina Bibi, who is unsure of her age but appears about eight, says she has never attended school before. She used to live in Pumara, an hour by 4-wheel-drive from Balakot, before most of her village’s buildings were destroyed by the quake. Now, her family of six lives in a tent in Balakot and she attends one of IRC’s child-friendly spaces. “We don’t know if we’ll go back,” she says.
When area schools were closed for two months after the earthquake, IRC’s child friendly spaces filled the education gap. But as schools are rebuilt or established in camps for displaced families, the IRC will begin complementing the formal education system, working with teachers to create “healing classrooms” that continue to provide psychosocial support for children. Eventually, members of the community will take on different responsibilities in the centers.
After the IRC first approached community elders and parents to explain the program, word spread quickly and requests came in from other communities for child friendly spaces of their own. The IRC is running 12 child friendly spaces in Pakistan, and expects to have 54 more up and running by the beginning of February.