Quake Survivor Says “Working with Children Gives Me a Sense of Purpose”
Shafta Gul, 20, was standing on the verandah of the local primary school where she worked in Balakot when the earthquake struck. In panic, she ran out in to the yard, escaping with minor injuries before the school collapsed, burying many of her students. It was later the same day that she learned that her mother, brother, and six members from her extended family also perished in the earthquake.
“I spent most of the following days crying, unable to come to grips with the loss of my mother and brother,” she says. “It became unbearable. I felt depressed and alone.”
But a few weeks later, Shafta came to meet an International Rescue Committee team that was setting up a “child-friendly space” in Upper Puri, a mountain community nestled among the pines of Balakot. This space, like many others established by the IRC, aimed to be a safe and welcoming environment for children--a place where they could quickly resume normal children’s activities, like crafts and sports, away from the surrounding chaos.
Shafta quickly volunteered, knowing that her experience as a teacher would benefit the children.
Sitting on a blanket distributing toys to the children, Shafta says that her new work has given her a sense of purpose after the loss of so many loved ones.
“I remember them all the time, but now when I work in the center, I’m feeling better,” Shafta says. “I have something to do each morning and when the children coming here are happy, playing and singing, they make my life more bearable.”
Some 17,000 children died in the earthquake according to a UNICEF report, and thousands more were left traumatized by the death of relatives and friends and the loss of their homes. Shafta’s job with the IRC is to encourage the children to express their feelings through, song, drawing, games and storytelling and to provide emotional support for vulnerable children. She also meets with their parents and guardians to discuss ways to help their children. Another component of the program involves promoting good health and hygiene.
“In the beginning the children would not come because they had so much fear, but now more and more children are joining each day,” she says, handing a colorful doll to a little boy. “They leave the center happy and are at ease. In a way they are learning to forget the trauma they suffered after the earthquake. The parents tell us they see a change in their children as a result of coming here.”
Shafta recalls one boy from the village that she was encouraging to join her at the child friendly space. “He refused, saying that his brothers and sisters died when they were in school. But eventually he came along and now he asks me to take him every morning.”
Nearly 1,500 children are currently enrolled in IRC’s 12 child-friendly spaces in the quake-hit districts of Abbottabad and Mansehra, and Shafta says that numbers are growing rapidly. In Upper Puri, where Shafta works, 64 children are regularly attending the program.