Fork-Lift Driver Heroes

In late July, 2010 monsoon rains in Pakistan were relentless, with no sign of letting up. In a 24-hour period, Peshawar recorded 10.8 inches. By August, whole cities were submerged. Comparative satellite images of the Indus River basin did not look like they were taken of the same place. In 2009, the basin anatomy looked like a heart and a main artery extending from north to south. some of which looked as if they had been cut, creating blood lakes.

News agencies captured photographs of panicked children, angry parents, whole families marooned with their livestock—looking for higher ground. Once fertile land had been washed away, along with grain, cotton, rice, sugar-cane. Planting would be impossible, affecting crop outputs and harvests, though poppy—a cash crop used largely for nefarious purposes, was hardy enough to survive. An aid worker once said: “Pakistan is living a tragedy in multiples of 2: 2,000 people and 200,000 lifestock killed, 2,000,000 bales of cotton under water—all with only 20% of promised relief funds available.”

From various estimates, betwen 20% and 40% of the country was under water, affecting 20 million people. And between 5,000 and 10,000 schools were destroyed. The aid worker continued. “I’ve never seen anything like it—triage for a country under water. But you know what? The Pakistanis have regrouped before. They’ll do it again.” Many weren’t so sure. Pakistanis and donor agencies were losing confidence in the government’s capacity to respond to the needs of its people. They feared an increased influence of the Taliban and their claim of rejecting all help from the west.

Meanwhile, though financial aid and supplies from around the world continued to come to Pakistan at an impressive rate, price gouging and incidents of cholera—along with the need for increased security for aid workers—made attempts at normalcy and development well near impossible. During the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, Sameena had established one with any available resources she could fine. “But I could have done a better job,” she said, “or done more, if only I had a chance to know more about how to build and sustain them. But we didn’t have time. The children needed a place to go. We had to do something—fast.”

From 2005 to 2010, she learned as much as she could about Child-Friendly Spaces[i], attended seminars, and taught her staff. She would be ready, she promised herself. That time had come. A functioning Child-Friendly Space in an emergency setting is an extraordinary undertaking. It demands open conversation about areas of strength and a hard look at gaps that must be addressed. It involves communication with, and coordination between, government authorities and parents, grandparents, religious leaders, and women’s groups. Child-Friendly Spaces need to fashion an educational structure and pressing demands with limited resources.

In emergencies, a space for learning necessitates an entirely different way of structuring who teaches and how one is taught. It values peers and mentors over textbooks, creativity and inclusion over curriculum business as usual. It requires vigilance about human rights, attention to gender, awareness of potential hazards, agreement around codes of conduct. A child-friendly space serves children only when its leaders value questions. To work, its leaders need each other. All this for whole communities in shock—their homes washed away. Suddenly wrenched away from anything familiar, children are given the chance to sing and draw again, play sports and hear stories, read and act out parts in drama skits. A place with color and a little normalcy so that they can solve problems and feel needed. A climate of dignity, kindness, and love.

Instinctively, Sameena called her colleague, Solmaz Mohadjer, to discuss how best to respond. They would rely on partners and, together, create Child-Friendly Spaces for children and their families uprooted and displaced by the flood. And then they both called Li-Hong, in China. Sameena’s Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy, the Pakistan Association for Mental Health, and the Roshni Helpline for Children established a counseling center, child-friendly spaces, and a women-friendly space in the Kemari Internally Displaced Persons Camp near Karachi.[ii] Sameena, Solmaz, and Li-Hong joined a group of people engaged a wide cross-section of Pakistani society: workers, nurses, students, psychologists, teachers, journalists, medical doctors, human rights activists, artisans, lawyers, and community development professionals. Equal numbers of men and women.

Together, they took action, but there was something more here. they embodied an even more inspiring message; they continued to learn—not only when the world’s attention was turned to Pakistan, but also after the cameras had left. They also took charge of their own professional development by learning from and with each other. I’ve met plenty of geologists who claim that many natural disasters are man-made. It sounds strange, coming from scientists, but after a while, you’ve seen enough to know that the earth may shudder and split, but buildings do not have to collapse. The rains may be torrential, but they need not sweep away villages.

The tsunami may be inevitable and sudden, but an educated community could recognize it immediately. Education can prevent a disaster from turning into a catastrophe. [i] Organizations such as Save the Children (see: http://bit.ly/L0D3a8) and the Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies (see: http://bit.ly/KFchlz) have provided specific, field-tested strategies in the field of “Child Friendly Spaces” [ii] Teachers Without Borders’ interview with Sameena Nazir, Mohammed Arif, Solmaz Mohadjer on Child-Friendly Spaces in Pakistan: http://bit.ly/L0Mc2D

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