1906, American Red Cross youth came to the aid of the victims
of the San Francisco earthquake — their first official
contribution as a group to peacetime disaster response.
One hundred years later, in November 2006, 24 Red Cross youth
members and their advisers from across Los Angeles met to
train as community disaster educators, readying them to help
others prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies through
the Be Red Cross Ready programme.
Today, all over the world, youth are involved in all kinds
of disaster work, and they constantly train and prepare to
improve. Many National Societies recognize the added value
of youth, not only ensuring that young people work alongside
other volunteers, but also designing specific youth activities
Youth constitute more than half of the 97 million members
and volunteers of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent
Movement. As such, their involvement in disaster response
is immense. During major recent catastrophes, such as the
Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, the Pakistan earthquake in 2005
and the conflict in Lebanon in 2006, youth volunteers stepped
up to help their communities.
The tsunami was a tough introduction to disaster response
for a group of Indonesian Red Cross Society youth volunteers.
All were students in their early 20s and, although trained
members of the disaster preparedness teams known throughout
Indonesia as Satgana, few had seen a dead body before. Now
they were collecting over 100 bodies a day.
“The first day we did it, it was very difficult. I
could never have imagined anything like this,” says
Aris Budman, 20, a psychology student. “The first night
I was still collecting bodies in my dreams.”
Despite the challenges, the young team members all agreed
that they would do it again.
“We feel that what we did there was very important,
even though we were sometimes confronted with difficult things,”
In Lebanon, most of the 5,000 volunteers responding during
and after the conflict in July and August 2006 were young
people. They collected the wounded and dead, distributed relief
goods and worked in shelters.
When asked to comment on relief work carried out during the
conflict, Sami Al Dahdah, the president of the Lebanese Red
Cross, particularly chose to recognize the contribution of
“I pay special homage to the humanitarian work and
the heroism of the young first-aid volunteers who drove on
damaged and destroyed roads, or sometimes even through fields,
to evacuate and transport the wounded,” he said. “In
spite of the constant danger, these young people were on the
battlefield, risking their lives to bring assistance to people.”
Marya Abdul Rahman, a volunteer in the Lebanese Red Cross
youth department, shared her experiences of working with children
in the shelters during the conflict, where she and her fellow
youth volunteers worked to remind children that they were
allowed to have fun.
“I saw smiles and heard laughter,” she recalls.
“It was soothing to hear these innocent sounds again
after getting used to the horrifying resonance of countless
bombs and air attacks.”
Fun can also be used to prepare children for disasters. In
Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, primary schoolchildren
sing a jingle written by their teacher and Red Cross contact
person. Miming the expected behaviour, the children take cover
under their desks in the classroom while singing: “When
the earth shakes and when the earth quakes, just duck and
cover and hold on tight!” The fun of the activity does
not undermine the message; on the contrary it enables the
young participants to remember these lifesaving actions.
Similarly, in Costa Rica, Red Cross youth members are trained
in methods from a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
programme, Return of Happiness, to give psychological and
emotional support to children in difficult times. So when
a neighbourhood of San José, the capital of Costa Rica,
was destroyed by fire in 2004, leaving thousands of people
homeless, trained Costa Rican Red Cross youth volunteers brought
toys and games to the children in the shelters and engaged
them in fun activities.
“Looking back, the project and the Red Cross youth
involvement worked wonderfully,” says Juan Carlos Hernandez
Lios, national youth director of the Costa Rican Red Cross.
“My dream is to see this approach adopted throughout
the Central American region.”
Understand and respond
Disaster preparedness allows Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers
to respond better. In Pakistan, one young woman quickly learned
the advantages of her training. Only three weeks after she
received her community-based disaster response training, the
newly acquired skills of Saeeda Bibi, 25, helped save lives.
When an earthquake struck, on 8 October 2005, she provided
water for survivors and cleaned mud from the bodies of victims.
She told villagers to get blankets and assist the injured.
She helped rescue schoolchildren and pulled out dead bodies.
Together, Saeeda and those with her saved more than 40 people
from collapsed homes.
“Because of the training, I realized I had to rescue
people, mobilize people,” she says. “So I left
my home and organized others to help.”
Saeeda received general community-based disaster response
training. Yet in many places, special courses are aimed at
Red Cross Red Crescent youth volunteers. For example, the
youth section of the Red Crescent Society of the Islamic Republic
of Iran organizes training courses for youth relief team leaders.
In December 2005, nearly 900 young team leaders participated
in a training course to learn more about topics such as psychological
support in disasters, management and leadership, emergency
shelter and first aid.
Youth in less disaster-prone areas are also involved in disaster-related
activities. In Canada, two programmes for children and young
people aim to teach them about disasters. Expect the Unexpected,
aimed at students, parents and teachers, features lesson plans
and activities on natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods,
earthquakes, tornados and storms. Since 1997, the programme
has been delivered to over 750,000 students aged from 7 to
13 and their families across Canada. A second programme, Facing
Fear, was developed to complement Expect the Unexpected and
aims to help young people be prepared for disasters and difficult
situations, and to sort out their feelings and fears.
Back in Indonesia, two years after the tsunami, camps and
campaigns are used to increase the awareness of youth and
to make them capable of responding in the future.
To commemorate International Risk Reduction Day in 2006,
on 12 October, the Indonesian Red Cross, with the United Nations
and other organizations, arranged a road show for disaster
awareness among primary school students in Jakarta. In one
day, 30 volunteers from different organizations visited 15
schools and trained around 1,300 children, including many
Red Cross youth members, to prepare for fires, floods and
earthquakes. Using methods such as simulation, story-telling,
drawing, singing, question–answer sessions and games,
they taught disaster awareness to the young participants.
At the end, the groups were presented with disaster preparedness
kits, including a snakes and ladders game developed and produced
by the Indonesian Red Cross.
A national youth camp, called Jumbara, held in July 2006,
also prepared young Indonesian volunteers. “The future
of the Red Cross is in the hands of young people,” says
Ullah Nuchrawaty Usman, Red Cross board member and chairman
of the Jumbara organizing committee. “We want them to
understand the humanitarian values of the organization and
realize the difference they can make, especially in the lives
of people in distress.”
Gratia, 16, attended Jumbara. “We hoped our presentation
would highlight the importance of protecting our environment
so we can prevent more disasters,” explains Gratia,
who played the role of Mother Earth in a production during
the camp. “Many of the so-called natural disasters are
actually man-made disasters and happen because of man’s
excessive manipulation of nature.”
The Republic of Korea National Red Cross youth section is
highly motivated in environmental preservation. One successful
activity is a nature protection programme in which 100,000
trees are planted every year. The National Society has also
successfully established a nature protection slogan: “Man
protects nature and nature protects man.”
In Armenia, the Red Cross youth has arranged Clean Sevan,
a summer camp aimed at cleaning the shores of Lake Sevan,
for the past seven years. This lake is the largest reservoir
of pure drinking water in the region, and at the same time
a favourite holiday resort for Armenians. In addition to the
cleaning activities, Red Cross volunteers also attract public
attention to the ecological problems of their country through
the media and school visits.
Emma Khachatryan is one of the volunteers who started the
programme seven years ago. She says not everyone welcomed
the initiative and that many thought the problem was too big
for the young people to deal with, but fortunately the youth
members did not listen.
“We were young,” Emma says, “and they were
right, we did not quite realize that some things are impossible.
This was our good fortune!”
The young volunteers went through with the initiative and
today the programme is a success. So far, more than 1,200
youth volunteers and students have participated in the camp,
not only cleaning the lake, but also taking the opportunity
to learn more about ecological issues and other important
topics. The persistence and proactiveness of the Armenian
Red Cross youth demonstrate, once again, the importance of
youth involvement to reach the goals of the Red Cross Red
Children and young people in the Palestine
Red Crescent Society’s psychosocial programmes learn
to discuss and understand their experiences in conflict.
©TOMAS BERTELSEN / DANISH RED CROSS
In the southern city of Juba, Sudanese Red
Crescent volunteers Angelina Daki Negadimo, 18, Flora Paul,
21, and Rejina Kinden, 25, share a joke.
©JAKOB DALL / DANISH RED CROSS