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Find your courage


By Seija Tornquist

The story of a baby elephant is giving new heart to thousands of families torn apart by the conflict in Sri Lanka.

Baba is a little Sri Lankan elephant whose father disappears during a battle between the animals of the jungle. Left alone with his mother, Baba finds himself obliged to go out and search for food. He encounters several adventures on the way and eventually learns that his father has died. At first unwilling to accept that his father will never return, Baba is finally persuaded that he must be brave and help his mother cope with the loss.

For women and children displaced by the conflict in Sri Lanka, A Little Elephant Finds His Courage is not just a fairy tale. It describes in simple and allegorical terms their own situation, and it is designed to help them understand and come to terms with what has
happened.

The children’s book, written by American psychologist Dr Nancy Baron and illustrated by one of Sri Lanka’s foremost artists, Sybil Wettasinghe, is the basis of a programme of psycho-social support for displaced people living in camps in Sri Lanka. The programme, “Find Your Courage”, was set in motion in 1994 by the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society and the Federation.

“My child cries every night and can’t explain why. I don’t know what to do. It’s a nightmare for the whole family and I am very, very tired,” says a mother of seven living in one of the camps.

 
 

Invisible scars

The conflict in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil separatists has driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes over the past four years. Many have sought refuge in foreign countries, but over 500,000 are displaced within Sri Lanka. Since 1990, the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, with the support of the Federation, has provided conventional forms of material assistance to some 50,000 displaced people in camps in seven districts outside the conflict zone.

While camp residents’ basic needs were being addressed in the form of shelter, water, sanitation and health care, it became increasingly clear that there was also a need for psycho-social assistance and counselling to help people cope with the stress and anguish of their predicament.

“Four of my relatives have been missing for three years.Two of them are my sons. I would just like to know if they are alive or dead,” laments one elderly woman. Her sentiments are echoed everywhere in the camps.

The extension of services from basic relief and health care to providing psycho-social support was a huge task and required a comprehensive study which was carried out in 1993 by Dr Baron. It was based on selected drawings done by 12,000 displaced children on the theme, “As I see the world”. The results clearly showed that families in the camps were suffering emotional stress caused by witnessing violence, losing loved ones and homes, living in a deprived environment, worrying about safety, being unable to meet their basic needs, and experiencing months of boredom and inactivity.

The final report re-commended some 30 small-scale projects aimed at reducing stress and rebuilding self-esteem and self-sufficiency.

“I have been told that my husband, who has been missing for two and a half years, is dead, but I find it so difficult to tell the children. They still think that their father has gone abroad and will come back one day,” says a mother of three.

A Little Elephant Finds His Courage will help such a mother broach the subject with her children. It is accompanied by a discussion guide for parents entitled “Let’s talk...” that’s designed to encourage children to discuss their feelings, either in terms of Baba’s or their own experiences.

The basic premise of the programme is that parents are best placed to help their children. Until they become victims of violence, most families function normally, and parents are able to take good care of their children. As a result of their experiences, many families suffer a reduced capacity to care for themselves. Parents become demoralised and believe that they have nothing to offer their children. Initially, parents are assisted in searching for their own courage.

“Recognising that children who are victims of violence must have added motivation and initiative to overcome their hardships, we encourage parents to promote courage and self-sufficiency in their children,” explains Baron. “Emotional stress is exacerbated when families are non-communicative and children are unable to express their fears, feelings or anxieties. Parents need new skills to enhance their ability to have open family communication.”

Theory into practice

The book’s author began by training three social workers and five members of mobile health teams to carry out the programme. They then went on to implement the programme, which consists of an introduction, a parent seminar and a follow-up session a week later. A social worker animates groups of up to 50 families in sessions that last about 45 minutes. Specific book themes are discussed with the parents, including the need to build confidence and self-sufficiency in children; empowerment of the parent or care-giver; the importance of strong family ties; the rationale for open family communication; the value of helping others; and promotion of the family and the community, world unity and peace. Women are often the ones who participate in the seminar, but the father (if he is with the family) is generally the one who reads the book to the children. Women are also the ones who attend the follow-up session with their children. This can last between one and two hours, depending on the nature of the discussion and questions that have arisen from the story.

“We are always warmly welcomed in the camps and encouraged to continue visits after this programme is over,” says Mrs B. Bawa, the social workers’ team leader.

“This is the first time that somebody has come to us and listened to our inner feelings. Why didn’t you come earlier?” says one programme beneficiary.

“This programme helps us discuss death, sorrow and other difficult issues more openly with our children and among adults, too,” says another.

Given the necessary encouragement, skills and resources, each and every displaced person possesses the potential to make a positive contribution to improving the quality of life for his or her family and the community.

 

Seija Tornquist
Seija Tornquist is a Finnish Red Cross delegate working for the Federation in Sri Lanka.



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