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Keeping a space safe

Japan, May 15, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

I was really excited about today's possibilities for stories here in Japan; we were going to see Comfort for Kids activities in the city of Kesennuma. But, as soon as we arrived at our destination, everything changed.

While I was taking off my shoes in the entranceway of the Kesennuma Middle School gym — which is now being used as an evacuation center in this tsunami-devastated town — one of my colleagues from Peace Winds let me know that we had some pretty strict guidelines: no photographs of children's faces. No video. And no interviews with children would be possible at this particular center.

She told me that, over the two months since the disasters struck, this evacuation center has been especially frequented by journalists wanting to talk to survivors. Every time someone wants to do an interview — and hundreds of reporters have been through here — it takes a survivor back to the shock, grief and trauma of that terrible day and its aftermath. And those feelings can be especially hurtful and harmful for children.

So families here asked the evacuation center officials to help preserve their privacy. Privacy is a precious commodity around here, since entire families are living in the shared space of a middle school building.

Honestly, it was a big disappointment for me as a writer. But, as a parent, I understand.

If my six-year-old son had been through a disaster or any other crisis, you bet I'd do everything I could to keep him from re-experiencing it. I'd let him have his own safe space to explore and process his feelings, helping him in any and every way I could — including preserving his privacy.

That's what the Comfort for Kids program is doing here in Kesennuma, as well as other evacuation centers across northeastern Japan. There's a little corner just for children on the sprawling blue tarp covering the gymnasium floor, set up by Peace Winds staff. Stuffed animals, games and other toys sit waiting in boxes that are tipped on their sides to serve as shelves.

In the middle of it all, a Peace Winds art therapist named Fumie Sugawara sits with two first-grade girls, playing a cute game. They laugh together. Fumie smiles and looks them in the eye, letting them know that she's there just for them. Letting them know this is a safe space, just for them.

One of a parent's most important roles is to protect their children. And, here in northeastern Japan, our job as Mercy Corps and Peace Winds aid workers is to give children — and their parents — the space and support to help them heal.