“The children must have felt so much fear in the midst of the situation but no child panicked. There were children who were crying, but children stayed calm.
There were even children who were taking care of other children who were crying. And it was amazing,” recalled Mr Asokawa, Tokura Primary School Headmaster, of the 11 March earthquake and tsunami.
Located just 300 metres from the coast, the small primary school in Minami Sanriku in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture was in a beautiful location. The children were flanked by forests and mountains on one side and could see the ocean from their classrooms. A strong sense of community prevailed. However the children’s serene days were turned upside down when one of the world’s largest earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis struck that Friday afternoon.
Reflecting on the day of the disaster, Mr Asokawa said “The magnitude of the tremor was something I had never experienced before, and it lasted a good 5 minutes. There was no way I was able to walk. And I saw the schoolyard, bending wildly like the surging sea. And immediately I reckoned there will be massive tsunami reaching us soon or later.”
Immediately after the tremor stopped, teachers gathered all the students and evacuated to a nearby hill. Rushing and out of breath, the group looked back from the top of a hill and saw the huge tsunami crushing a concrete embankment below. The group watched the tsunami swallow their beloved Tokura primary school and newly constructed gym.
“I thought ‘The tsunami may come close and reach us here on this hill.’ So, together with the children, we ran to higher place in the hill, where there was a small shrine in the mountain”, said Mr Asokawa.
Reaching the shrine, they looked back and saw their previous place, lower down the mountain, swallowed by the sea. With the roaring sound of the tsunami behind them, the giant wave had swollen their school, buildings, houses, cars and everything in the town. From their shrine on the mountain, they were surrounded by water.
“When we reached the shrine, the first wave had retreated. But we knew second and third waves are usually higher than the first ones. Teachers had gathered all the children, and told them, ‘if there are any more tsunami waves, climb the trees!’ But at the same time, I had resigned to think ‘if there is another wave, this will be it for all of us’….” said Mr Asokawa.
Some 150 people from our community had managed to escape to the shrine. People were calm, and helping each other.
“At the school, we prepared disaster preparedness plans and manuals for emergencies, but what is the most important for disaster preparedness is not manuals. The most important thing is the “ties,” the day-to-day relationship among people from the community. I reflect on these days of the emergency, and I strongly believe that it was the crucial asset,” said Mr Asokawa.
During the night it started to snow and it became freezing cold. Children sang songs they had been practising for the graduation ceremony which was supposed to take place in one week. The following day, children and teachers, parents and people from the community, walked to a designated evacuation centre in a local junior high school in neighbouring Tome City.
“At the evacuation centre, children endured and behaved themselves incredibly. Children saw their fathers and mothers distressed and they probably thought they should keep self-control, and not to discourage or disturb adults and others as they cope. But about a week later, children began to show indications of stress. Some children cried in the night and many children began to have fever,” said Mr Asokawa.
Six days after the disaster, school teachers and parents decided to recommence some form of education for their children. However with the majority of people now homeless, exhausted and distressed, it was challenging for the adults to know where to start.
When World Vision staff visited the evacuation centre, they worked with teachers and parents to build relationships and explain how Child Friendly Spaces were an opportunity for children to gather in a safe, fun and educational environment.
World Vision had deployed staff to the affected areas within 48 hours of the earthquake, and distributed relief items to evacuation centres in Tome and Minami Sanriku, so it was a natural progression to set up Child Friendly Spaces.
“Initially, World Vision provided school materials and equipment to restart our school year. And later World Vision told us that they could provide for children’s care at a Child Friendly Space. Initially, I was not sure if World Vision can really take care of the children who were already hurt by the disaster. So we decided to provide one opportunity for World Vision to conduct a Child Friendly Space session to see how it works,” recalls Mr Asokawa.
At the library space in the evacuation centre, World Vision conducted a small participatory planning session with 20 children.
“During the session, World Vision staff listened to ideas and comments from children and asked children to participate in the planning of a Child Friendly Space. When I observed this very first activity session, I knew I could trust World Vision to take care of my children,” said Mr Asokawa.
Tokura Primary School children attended sessions at the Tome City evacuation centre, and then eventually at a prefabricated building set up at their school once it was deemed safe to return.
“At the Child Friendly Space, children were able to interact with others, other than their parents and teachers. Initially, this was a difficult thing for the children, as many had lost contact with people from their neighbourhood due to the disaster. At the Child Friendly Space, children were accepted and listened to. They could be themselves and share about themselves freely. Because of the Child Friendly Space, the children from Tokura were able to carry on their day-to-day lives with much support and care, despite the intense stress they had to go through. We are deeply grateful for all the support we have received,” said Mr Asokawa.
At the Tokura Primary School, a large ‘thank you’ banner hangs, covering almost half of the school. The colourful banner, made by the children reads:“We thank you whole heartedly for all the warm encouragement and support we received. We are all doing well because of you.”
World Vision established seven Child Friendly Spaces during the weeks following the earthquake and tsunami. Initially the spaces were the only place for children to gather and participate in formal and informal educational and fun activities, allowing them a chance to be children again. As schools were re-established again, the CFS provided after-school and school holiday activities. Parents and care-givers also benefitted, knowing their children were in a supportive, safe environment, allowing adults to re-establish their families’ lives.
Story by Mitsuko Sobata - Communications Officer