Education International
Education International

Teachers and children survive tsunami trauma with help from EI

published 1 September 2009 updated 1 September 2009

Irianti Syabaruddin, a teacher and mother of three, was at the supermarket on that fateful Sunday morning when the earthquake hit. The floor lurched under her feet and groceries began crashing down off the shelves. Then all she could think of was getting home to her family as quickly as possible.

Irianti didn’t know it, but she was feeling the first shocks of an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.3 – the second largest quake ever recorded on a seismograph. With the epicentre just 100 km off the west coast of Sumatra, her home city of Banda Aceh, in Indonesia was directly in the path of the oncoming tsunami that would soon destroy her family and devastate her community. At home, Irianti found her mother, her husband and their two daughters in the yard. The neighbourhood quickly began flooding so she urged the children and mother to flee with neighbours in their car, while she and her husband ran for higher ground. Suddenly the couple was separated by the awesome power of the water. “I thought it was the end of the world. I thought it was a sign from Allah that it was my destiny to be killed by the black wave.” Irianti was not dead, though, only knocked unconscious. When she came to, she was clinging to a piece of wood. “The waters were churning with debris and swirling me around and around. People shouted at me to watch out because the second wave was coming.” Scientists later found evidence that the tsunami reached a height of 24 metres when coming ashore along large stretches of the Aceh coastline, rising to 30 metres in some inland areas. The second wave swept Irianti into a garage, where powerful currents pushed her deep underwater. “I began to panic but then I remembered what I learned in psychology class at university. I tried to calm myself by imagining I was in a quiet, beautiful room.” After she surfaced, she was able to clamber up onto the roof of a nearby house with a few other women. As the waters subsided they climbed down, but Irianti could not. There were dead bodies in the water and many people with grievous injuries. Time passed and Irianti realised that she was alone on the roof, perhaps alone in the world. That’s when she began screaming. “I was crying out for my children and my husband. I could not stop.” *** Meanwhile, in the neighbourhood of Gampong Baro, the tsunami had completely destroyed Elementary School 31. Headmistress Isjalidar Ishak Ibrahim recalled how the wave swept the entire second floor off of the building and deposited it half a kilometre away in another village. Bizarrely, the doors stayed shut and the furniture remained inside, even though the building had been ripped apart. All that was left at the original site was the foundation. Six teachers and the school custodian died, along with almost all of the 169 children who attended the school. About 2,300 Acehnese teachers and 20,000 students were among the global total of 230,000 people who perished in the tsunami, making it one of the deadliest disasters in recorded history. To this day, Isjalidar searches in vain for her husband who has never been found. Her colleague Cutmalakasma also lost her husband, as well as her two sons aged 11 and 7. She says: “I remember like it was yesterday. I will never forget.” *** Many health professionals and aid workers reported widespread psychological trauma associated with the tsunami. Traditional beliefs in many affected regions hold that a relative must bury the dead, but in many cases no body remained to be buried. There are at least three mass graves in Aceh, some believed to contain the remains of as many as 4,000 people. Aceh in particular is a religiously conservative Islamic society in which some believed that the tsunami was divine punishment. In the wake of the tsunami, Irianti and her husband, Atqia Abubakar, fell into a deep depression over the loss of her mother and their daughters Nadia, 11, and Fitria, 6. Indeed, all of the families in the community were in shock, suffering nightmares and phobias. “I was constantly thinking: ‘What if …?’ I felt guilty for surviving and I blamed myself,” Irianti said. “Some people were angry with God. But after a couple of weeks I realised that it was my destiny to survive.” As a trained psychologist, Irianti believed she owed it to her children to transform her suffering into a means of helping others. She participated in the EI/JTU trauma counselling course, and became a respected leader of the programme. “You can imagine that if there had been no aid from foreign countries … the psychological and mental recovery of the people from the trauma would have been much, much slower.” Irianti and her husband Atqia began visiting the tent cities and refugee camps, talking to the victims, expressing their grief and supporting one another. They worked with women from a community called Lamnga to create a play about their experiences which they later performed in Aceh and even as far away as Jakarta. John Brownlee of the NGO Mercy Corps wrote: “Through this process of community theatre, I have personally witnessed the transformation of the Lamnga women into strong agents of positive change in their community. Their perseverance and dedication in the face of overwhelming personal loss is a testament to the human spirit and an inspiration for us all.” *** In the weeks after the tsunami, headmistress Isjalidar heard a rumour that the government was attempting to take back the site where her school once stood. Determined that learning would one day continue there despite all the losses, she went and planted up a sign that said: “No trespassing. Here is our school.” And indeed, thanks to EI, a new school was built on that very site. It has warm yellow walls with peach-coloured trim, six classrooms, a library, a multi-purpose room with 16 computers, a prayer room, head teacher’s office and staff quarters. “The whole school is complete. All we have to do is go in and teach,” Isjalidar says. She participated in the EI school leadership programme offered by the AEU, and clearly has taken its lessons to heart. Her school is among the best-run and highest-performing of all the EI schools, says project coordinator Jerome Fernandez. Fellow teacher Cutmalakasma says that the trauma counselling she received through EI helped her personally to cope with the loss of her family and enabled her to better support her students, especially those who were orphaned. “I learned ways to help them remember the tsunami, ways to study about it. The children were very afraid and they were looking to us teachers for comfort.” Today, the students have earthquake drills and learn about tsunamis, but their school seems a happy, busy place where children laugh and play unburdened by the terrible memories. Some children receive scholarships from EI to offset the costs of their school supplies, uniforms, and other needs. Two of the scholarship recipients were among the dancers at the closing ceremony for the EI project. Faadhilah, 11, wants to be a teacher or doctor when she grows up. She is happy at school because she has lots of friends there. She likes playing on the playground, reading in the library and using the computer lab. “When I go to college I’ll already be able to use a computer!” Zurrahmah, 12, says she likes her school a lot because the building is lovely and the teachers are very good. “Our teachers care about us and they always answer our questions very well.” Zurrahmah wants to become a banker when she grows up because, she says, “honest people should go into banking.” Fernandez says it’s precisely this kind of comment that makes his day. “It’s a crusade to bring out excellence in the children.... The measure of our success is when you go to a school and see the smiling faces of the children, their joy of learning – you can’t express that in words or measure it in money.” By Nancy Knickerbocker.

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 31, September 2009.