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Youth, ready to respond


All over the world, youthful energy, playfulness and idealism are being harnessed by savvy disaster preparedness and response programmes.


IN 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 and programmes.

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,” says another.

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 youth.

“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.”

Bringing happiness

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 environment

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 Crescent Movement.





Children and young people in the Palestine Red Crescent Society’s psychosocial programmes learn to discuss and understand their experiences in conflict.




















In the southern city of Juba, Sudanese Red Crescent volunteers Angelina Daki Negadimo, 18, Flora Paul, 21, and Rejina Kinden, 25, share a joke.


Åsta Ytre
Åsta Ytre was International Federation youth communication officer.



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