Orphans need special trauma care

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Hundreds orphaned by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami remain vulnerable two years later because of insufficient government support.

Last June, the Diet passed legislation to help disaster-affected children and women, but details are hazy.

Instead of waiting for the government to take action, the private sector has taken the initiative. The nonprofit group Ashinaga, which provides educational and psychological support for orphans worldwide, began soliciting donations two days after the disaster and has collected more than ¥5 billion since.

While the government said 241 children under 18 lost both parents in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, the organization has handed out ¥2 million each to almost 2,100 people from toddlers to graduate students whose parent or parents were lost or became seriously disabled.

Based on his experience helping kids after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, Yoshiji Hayashida, the head of Ashinaga Tohoku office, said long-term psychological support is urgently needed for the kids and their guardians.

Ashinaga plans to open a so-called Rainbow House to provide day-to-day and long-term psychological support in Sendai, Rikuzentakata in Iwate Prefecture, Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture and Minamisoma in Fukushima Prefecture next March. It is already offering one-day programs.

“Many children don’t think it’s OK to talk about their traumatic experiences,” said Hayashida, who was instrumental in launching the Rainbow House in ravaged Kobe after the Hanshin quake. “We need to create a safe haven where children feel at ease to set their own pace.”

Many are still having difficulty coping with their losses.

“I attended the gathering today, but I couldn’t talk because it was a very sad experience, and I cry whenever I talk about it,” a sixth-grader from Iwate Prefecture who lost his father wrote.

Some even feel responsible for their parents’ deaths.

“Since my mother was found, I’ve rung the bell every Friday at 2:46 p.m. to say sorry to her,” wrote a third-grader from Miyagi Prefecture who feels guilty that she quarreled with her mother before leaving for school that day.

Others are uncomfortable with receiving special treatment.

“I don’t talk about my dad’s death at school, because I don’t want my teachers to treat me any differently, as many people do,” wrote a Fukushima fourth-grader who said he was unable to laugh or smile for a month after his father died on March 11.

According to government estimates, 70 percent of those who lost both parents now have foster parents, such as aunts or uncles, taking care of them. But foster families need help as well.

Hayashida said Ashinaga sometimes gets calls from foster parents who don’t know what to do with their adopted children.

“We once got a call from a woman who adopted her sister’s son asking us how she should act when he objected to eating certain foods,” Hayashida said.

The biggest challenge will be to remind the public that it will take a long time for the children to get over such losses, he said.

“The memory of the earthquake and tsunami is fading among people who weren’t affected, but traumatic experiences remain within children’s hearts,” Hayashida said. “It’s very important for us to keep supporting and caring for those children.”