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The memory of the 6.5 magnitude Ludian earthquakewill stay with me forever.
By no means was it my first emergency response for Plan International China. I’d worked on numerous responses before. However, when the Ludian earthquake struck, causing huge damage and loss of life in Yunnan Province on August 3 2014, my baby was 11-months-old.
I was quickly deployed to run Plan International’s child-friendly spaces, which were providing psychosocial support and help to children who had experienced the earthquake. I couldn’t control my tears as I Ieft; I didn’t want to leave my boy. He was so young, but I knew I needed to go and support those affected. I had seven years of experience under my belt and it would benefit the team and help those in need.
I cried until I got to the airport, but when I arrived, I wiped away my sadness and told myself, “Your son will be proud of you when he grows up.” My colleagues and I eventually arrived in Ludian, after travelling for two days. We were located just two kilometres away from the epicentre.
When I saw my colleagues who were already at the scene, I was astonished. They were tired, their voices hoarse and their clothes dirty. Working in a disaster is not easy, but I knew this situation was more challenging. We were taken to our accommodation - a prefabricated house, with a narrow bed. There was nowhere to eat. Instant noodles were our sustenance.
My colleagues who were in the field were setting up our child-friendly spaces, which were providing a safe place for children to play and learn. My job was to find partners and volunteers and to find a safe, long-term location for the child-friendly space. I knew this was going to be difficult. I told my colleague: “I’ll try my best, but there is no guaranteed outcome."
In the affected area, I noticed each family had three to four children, unlike the rest of the country.
People are illiterate, while many have left the community to find work, leaving their children behind to live with their grandparents. It is common for older siblings to take care of their brothers and sisters and take them to school or child-friendly spaces.
Every day we walked two kilometres to Plan International’s child-friendly space. Even though it opened at 9am, I often used to find children waiting for us from 8am. Even at lunchtime, they didn’t want to go home, as there was no one there.
I remember one boy. He was always silent. The only time I ever heard his voice was when there were group activities taking place with other children. He always wore a lot of clothes, even when it was hot. Children told me his grandfather was taking care of him, as his father had a mental illness and his mother had left and got remarried.
There was another young boy who stood out too. He was always willing to help out in the child-friendly space. If we had no lunch, he would bring us fruit. When I returned to evaluate the programme some months later, he told me he was now team leader of the school youth group. I felt so proud.
Every night during my initial deployment we would return to our accommodation and work on activities for the next day. There was no toilet and nowhere to wash. I didn’t shower for 16 days while I was deployed to the field. Even as I write this experience, I still can’t believe what happened. Those who lived through the earthquake had lost family members and friends. Everyone was sad and busy. Families were under pressure to reconstruct schools and government buildings on a short deadline. I wanted to hug the children and tell them it would be OK, but I didn’t dare as I was afraid they would burst into tears.
Eventually, we were able to move our child-friendly space to the reconstructed local primary school, with the support of the headmaster. The headmaster gave us a classroom and it felt much safer than our previous location, which was next to a busy street market. This new location helped families, as older siblings could drop their brothers and sisters off in the morning and then go to class.
Volunteers were difficult to come by at the time, but Plan International forged a powerful partnership with Care for Living, an organisation specialising in volunteers for emergency responses. They arranged for two experienced volunteers to join us. It really was a joint effort and their support lasted until the end of the project.
While working in the Ludian earthquake area, I was tired but internally thankful. I was thankful to the children I played with, the parents who gave us lunch, the supermarket that gave us free instant noodles, the headmaster who supported our work and the staff who helped monitor children’s health. We came to support and help those affected by earthquake, but they helped me too.
As I started my journey home to celebrate my son’s first birthday, I saw the green scenery of Ludian drifting further way, but inside, I felt quiet and positive. I know Ludian and its lovely people are strong and supported enough now to recover.