All the colors of helping survivors

Japan, June 9, 2011

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  • All the colors of helping survivors
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fumie Sugawara (in glasses) plays a colorful game with young tsunami survivors at Kesennuma Middle School. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The sprawl of blue tarpaulins and stark white tents inside the gymnasium of Kesennuma Middle School, a place that several dozen families have called home for nearly three months now. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Cheerful, creative, indomitable spirits like Fumie's are helping disaster-affected children rediscover play and happiness despite hard times. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

Fumie Sugawara sits on the blue tarpaulin that's spread across the floor the gymnasium. A bright yellow truck and other vibrant toys are gathered around her. Fumie engages two young girls in an imaginative game using a dozen different shades of Play-Doh.

She has always found herself drawn to art and expression through colors. Colors helped Fumie make it through a personal crisis years ago, when she was a young university student in the United States. They helped her choose pursuit of an Art Therapy degree. And today, they're helping her bring creative therapeutic play to young tsunami survivors as part of Mercy Corps' Comfort for Kids program here in northeastern Japan.

Watch Comfort for Kids activities taking place in Kesennuma

Fumie grew up in the city of Kesennuma, which was hit hard by March's disastrous earthquake and tsunami. She attended Kesennuma Middle School, which is now being used as an evacuation center and temporary shelter for families that lost their homes. That's where today's Comfort for Kids activity is taking place: in the very same gymnasium where she played games as a young girl.

Things have come full circle for Fumie — all the way from here in Japan to Wisconsin and back. She earned her Master of Science degree in Art Therapy at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, a perfect melange of her interests in colors, education and psychology. Then she worked as a therapist in the United States for seven years, before going home to Kesennuma in February.

From "hopeless" to helpful

When the earthquake and tsunami struck less than a month later, Fumie was far from her hometown of Kesennuma. She was traveling with her mother when they heard the horrific news, and because public transit was down, couldn't get back to Kesennuma until two days later. Thankfully, her family was all right. But her city was in bad shape. Hundreds of people had lost their homes, and the needs were overwhelming.

"To be honest, when the disaster hit, at first I felt helpless and hopeless," Fumie explains. "I was already out of work, with nothing to do, so I went to the local volunteer center. What they wanted were hands to sort things out — anything. So I said, 'Here, let me do it.'"

"But what I really wanted to do was art therapy for displaced children and families. I kept coming in and expressing my background, which was initially hard for people to understand — we don't really have that in Japan," she continues. "But then they asked me to go and see about the needs at the evacuation centers, and see if there was anything I could do about it. That’s how this started, and that's how I started working with Peace Winds (Mercy Corps' partner).”

Since then, she's been busy helping develop the Comfort for Kids program, continuing to visit evacuation centers like this and connecting with young survivors through art, sports and other fun activities. Almost three months after the tsunami ended or shattered thousands of lives, Fumie sees so many needs — for children and adults alike.

“Mostly, kids here are keeping their experience and grief to themselves,” she explains. "Art is such a safe communication — it creates distance from things that are painful or uncomfortable. And play is a powerful medium for children to explore what they've experience and what they're feeling. Comfort for Kids provides the space, time and materials — and play partners — to help them do that.”

The girl with red eyes

Fumie then remembers one young girl that she recently met at one of the evacuation centers.

"We were doing an art exercise with several children. 'Draw anything you want,' I said. The kids said, ‘I can draw this’ and showed me pictures of pretty things like dresses," she recalls. "Then something happened when they got off by themselves. When they came back, one girl showed me a picture she’d drawn of a girl in a dress with red eyes — really red. Then she quietly folded it, embarrassed. She didn’t want to show anyone. So we put it in an envelope for safe keeping until she’s ready to show it.

"This girl has stayed in a community center just after the tsunami, trapped with no food or water until they were rescued two days later by helicopter. She saw fire. She saw explosions.”

Fumie pauses, and then keeps describing her interaction with the young girl that day.

“I asked her, ‘What do you want at this moment?’ She said, ‘A house’,” Fumie says. “We have to listen to what they say. When they try to express themselves, we give them the chance without us changing their story at all. We create a safe environment. We repeat what they say so they can process what they need to say.

“So I told her, ‘We cannot bring back your house, but here’s what we can provide.’ It’s okay to tell them what we can control and what we cannot control.”

Therapy for survivors of all ages

It's not just children who feel like their world is out of control — their parents are feeling enormous stress as well.

“Adults get to the point where they can’t control the chaos anymore," Fumie explains. "Children are able to sort it out, like blocks, through play. We want to give kids that time and space so adults can have their time and space as well.”

Psychosocial needs here in northeastern Japan have no age limit. That's why Fumie is working hard alongside her Peace Winds and Mercy Corps colleagues to develop programs that help any survivors who seek therapy and the chance to explore their feelings.

“We have to provide more specific programs for all age groups, both children and adults. Even the elderly, to facilitate healthy communication between generations,” she says.

The world of northeastern Japan's evacuation centers is dominated by big blue tarpaulins, stark white tents and the uncertainty of what comes next for thousands of survivors. But with help from Mercy Corps and Peace Winds, Fumie Sugawara is bringing brightness, lightness and caring support back into hundreds of lives.