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“After the earthquake, she always slept closest to the door, so that she can escape quickly in the event of an aftershock,” said the mother of 11-year-old Lu Xueqing(not her real name). “She often grabs my hand, afraid that something is about to happen.”
This is just an example of the distress Xueqing had to cope with in the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Ya’an prefecture on April 20th, 2013. The temblor resulted in the death of 190 people.
Xueqing lives with her parents and elder sister in Longmen Township, one of the worst-affected in the earthquake. Her father works in Hebei Province while her mother stays home. Her elder sister is studying in Sichuan Normal University.
The effects of the earthquake were seen in Xueqing’s social life and grades. “After the earthquake, she didn’t smile for a long time,” said Xueqing’s friend, Lu Yiling(not her real name). “She often sat in a corner staring into space. For some time, when the boys started joking about the earthquake, she would walk away angrily.”
Her distress also affected her grades. “She scored 80 marks for her math in the last semester. After the earthquake, her grades fell to just over 60 marks,” her mother said. “She had over 60 for her Chinese language and only 40 marks now."
In Save the Children’s relief work in the affected area, they discovered that people living in Xueqing’s township had a lower literacy rate, with many children young children left behind by their parents who have gone to the cities to find work. Many children were also showing signs of distress as a result of the earthquake, particularly those who lost their friends or family, and required psychosocial support. The debris and destruction also meant that children had little public space to play.
To help children such as Xueqing, Save the Children and its partners set up 50 child friendly spaces in Sichuan to provide children with a safe space to play, learn and talk through their experiences. Children were also encouraged to take on additional responsibilities, such as managing the child-friendly spaces during the day.
Xueqing participated in Chinese and English reading, learning methods, and summer tuition group. She also took part in many art and craft activities.
“I like to draw beautiful scenery and flowers,” said Xueqing. “I draw many different little flowers in red, gold, blue, pink, orange and purple. The largest flower I’ve drawn is a sunflower with little green leaves. I think I draw quite well, so it makes me happy.”
It was at the child friendly space that Xueqing discovered her love for dancing. “One day, a relative of Xueqing told me that she wanted to learn to dance and asked if she could borrow my computer as she did not own any music,” said the child friendly space manager, Mr Ma. “I said yes.”
Mr Ma then arranged for them to perform. “[Our first performance] was at the half-time break of a basketball game,” said Xueqing. “The second time we performed was at an athletics meet and the third was to welcome the volunteers from colleges. Everyone started to dance behind us. Upon hearing the applause, I was happier than I’d ever been. I can’t think of anything that makes me happier.”
Xueqing gave her dance team a name Yumai flower dance group. They have their own uniforms and a teacher helps them to choreograph the dances. “I told Mr Ma that I would like to be a professional dancer,” said Xueqing.
These activities have helped Xueqing recover from the earthquake. “It was hard to get her to answer any questions when she first took part in our activities,” said Teacher Gao, the assistant of Mr. Ma in the CFS. “She has matured, and has started to think for others.”
Teacher Gao continued to recount the story of how a choreographer was dissatisfied with the dance group’s performance, causing the team to be despondent. But Xueqing stood up and said: “Let’s not be a nuisance; we are about to perform so let’s continue to practice.”
Indeed, these changes were not coincidental. Children are particularly vulnerable in emergencies as they may not understand what is happening around them, requiring special care in order to recover and thrive in their communities.