Helping children to cope with the tsunami

The play centres have been a great success

A sea of smiling faces greets us as we enter the Kaluthavalai children's centre near Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka.

This content was published on December 25, 2005 minutes

The play centre, which was set up by Swiss non-governmental organisation Terre des hommes, is trying to help children come to terms with the tsunami.

Last December's tidal wave caused widespread destruction in the coastal town of Batticaloa and its environs. In all, 3,000 people died and a further 56,000 were left homeless.

The area is mainly under Sinhalese government control, but there are pockets of Tamil Tiger - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) - resistance. Tensions are simmering.

The psychological effects of the tsunami on the conflict-affected region run deep, especially among children. "It began with stress, they were frightened that the tsunami would come back, were afraid of showering and water," explains Terre des hommes' Maïwen Abjean,

"They were afraid of losing loved ones, they were clinging to their parents, and their parents wouldn't let go of them," she adds.

In the Batticaloa and Ampara region there are 20 such centres, set up with the aim of helping around 4,500 mainly Tamil children regain their psychological balance.


The centres seem to be having the desired effect. At Kaluthavalai, which is around 20 kilometres from Batti as the locals call it, the children are visibly enjoying themselves playing games such as volleyball, cricket or just running around.

Thayanithi, a social supporter at the centre, says the project has allowed girls and boys to become normal children again. "They are no longer worried or depressed," she says.

As well as sport, the centres offer art, dance, health and educational support. All the instructors are locals. Up to 350 children aged five-18 attend the after-school project, which runs from 3pm to 5.30pm during the week.

Terre des hommes trains and pays for the staff, while the community provides the land and the instructors.

Open up

With no culture of talking about problems in Tamil families nor a national policy to help traumatised children, the centres have helped young people open up about their feelings, says Abjean.

Many children were afraid to discuss the tsunami at first, but now most feel able to – even to a delegation of Swiss journalists.

Thulisa, who is 13-years-old and wants to be a doctor, tells us how she and her relatives ran to the main road and got a lift into the next village. One day later they came back to scenes of devastation.

Speaking a little hesitantly at times and looking towards Thayanithi for reassurance, she explains that they found that the village was awash with stagnant water, mud and dead animals.

"It affected us very much and we thought 'what has happened to our beautiful area?'" she recalls.

"Then we got together and cleaned up the place and started doing our normal work. After some days the centre was started and then our deep sorrow slowly vanished," adds Thulisa.


Satveehan, a boy of 13, tells a similar story. He also escaped the wave to find that his village had been badly damaged.

But he brightens up when he talks about the centre. "It makes me forget about my tsunami trauma," says Satveehan, who enjoys playing volleyball and wants to be a teacher.

The project is not just welcomed by the children. The centre's supervisor, M.D.Victor, says that although some parents were worried that the project might encroach on their children's studies – educational achievement is very important in Sri Lanka – the majority of them now support the scheme.

"Parents believe that children should be brought up to value discipline, education, morality and social questions, so they think the centres do great good for the children now and for them as future adults in society," says Victor.


Another important part of the project's work is to address child protection issues and to raise awareness of this among the community.

Ruth O'Connell, Terre des hommes' psychosocial coordinator, says that at first problems mainly concerned lost birth certificates and non-attendance at school due to lost school books or uniforms.

"Now problems are more specific to communities coming to terms with what's happened – more child abuse, attempted rape, selling of children, people not coping any more and psycho-social distress such as hair falling out, skin diseases," she says.

Alcohol abuse among jobless or frustrated adults is also increasingly common. There are as yet no similar support projects for adults, although O'Connell is hoping to instigate one for young adults.

The centres try and identify difficulties and social workers then work alongside with the children, their families and their communities to try and resolve them. The NGO also works with the relevant local authorities.

"A social worker talks to parents and has good contact with the school, so school dropouts are noticed and teachers can get them back into school," says Thayanithi.

"Drinking and beating can also be reduced because of these home visits."

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Kaluthavalai, Sri Lanka

Key facts

The tsunami struck on December 26, 2004.
Over the last year, Terre des hommes has set up 20 play centres for 4,500 children in eastern Sri Lanka.
There are more than 100 local instructors working in these centres.
Children aged 5-18 attend the centres, which after school.
Funding comes from Swiss Solidarity and ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian aid programme.

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In brief

Terre des hommes is a Lausanne-based NGO helping children in 30 countries. It has been in Sri Lanka for 27 years.

It extended its already existing projects in Batticaloa and Ampara to help children affected by the tsunami. For this it has two years' of funding.

The total budget for Terre des hommes' children's projects as well as sanitation and medical emergency help in Sri Lanka is SFr6.2 million ($4.8 million).

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