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Helping the Japan tsunami’s littlest survivors

Japan, March 26, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Rin Suzuki, age 3, has been living in the Kesennuma gymnasium with her parents for two weeks. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Soma and his sister Kokoa are afraid of rooftops, and cry that they want to go home. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

The youngest survivors of disasters are often the most resilient, but also the most fragile. While earthquakes and tsunamis rob children of the same things that most adults hold dear — homes, families, friends — kids lack adult coping mechanisms. The emotional toll can be devastating.

Today in Kesennuma, a city of about 70,000 people in northeast Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture, I witnessed both the resiliency and fragility of children. In the city’s main evacuation center — a converted sports complex — a play room has been set aside for small children. Today was the first day it’s been staffed by certified childcare providers who are creating activities to make life a little more normal and pleasant under the current, difficult circumstances.

That’s where I met Hidayuki Suzuki, age 40, his wife Miho, age 24, and their three-year-old daughter Rin. The Suzuki family had been living in the evacuation center for two weeks since their apartment was severely damaged by flooding. Hidayuki tells me that Rin is too young to understand the earthquake and the family has been together the whole time, so she’s doesn’t seem troubled.

Dad was more worried about contagious illnesses like colds and the flu, which despite best efforts to practice good hygiene like hand washing and the omnipresence of medical masks, are running rampant in the overcrowded living conditions. Rin, he explains, became very ill when they first arrived at the center. Despite her current cheerful appearance, she’s still on the mend.

In the main auditorium, I met a family with a different story. Hiromi Ito, age 33, had brought her two young children Soma and Kokowa to visit their grandparents, who are living in the center. Hiromi and her children are also evacuees but they have been taken in by her husband’s family. Hiromi’s mother, Masako, had not seen her grandchildren since the quake.

When the tsunami hit, Hiromi and her children fled to a nearby rooftop, where they remained stranded for three days without water, shelter or any form of relief. Finally, the family was rescued via helicopter, and things haven’t been the same since.

“My children are afraid,” Hiromi reveals. “They wet the bed. They cry all the time that they don’t want to go up on the roof, and they want to go home. When we were waiting to be rescued, they had nothing to eat, and now they won’t stop eating.” She’s obviously very worried about them.

Children like Rin, Soma and Kokowa are survivors, but they’ll need help — whether it’s working through their fears, learning to feel safe again, or just being able to play with other kids in a normal, happy environment.

That’s why I’m glad Mercy Corps and Peace Winds are teaming up to bring Comfort for Kids to Japan. Comfort for Kids has provided post-trauma assistance to children and caregivers in settings as diverse as New York City after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sichuan Province of China after 2008’s powerful earthquake, and most recently, the earthquake zone of Haiti.

Now we’ll work with a team of Japanese experts to create a customized program that is culturally appropriate and built around the unique circumstances of this country’s recent disaster. I’m confident it will help the children of Japan not just survive, but thrive in the long term.