Six-year-old Pablo’s face lights up when I tell him we’re going to run a painting workshop in his village and he’s invited. His mother says he’s been withdrawn and quiet since the earthquake on 19th September, when their lives were turned upside down. But drawing, it seems, is Pablo’s way of dealing with things.
He lives in the remote mountain community of Huejotengo, in Morelos state, about 100km south of Mexico’s sprawling capital city, with his mother Blanca and his grandparents. It’s an idyllic and peaceful life in a close-knit community, far away from the pollution, crime and poverty of Mexico City. At least it was.
Three massive earthquakes have rocked Mexico in less than three weeks, with more than 4,000 associated aftershocks. The mood is one of fear and confusion. Hundreds of families with children are still sleeping rough, too scared to return to their damaged homes for fear that another tremor could bury them alive. At least 7,000 schools are damaged while many are being used as makeshift shelters. All this is having a negative impact on children. They don’t understand why they can’t return to their homes and their beds and many are still not back at school.
Pablo shows me a ‘before and after’ drawing he made of his house following the earthquake. I can see a house, and below it, only rubble. In his child-like handwriting and in the broken Spanish of a six-year-old he writes:
‘I used to have house but earthquake take it away. Everything fall down and nothing left behind.’
A boy Pablo’s age doesn’t understand why the world shook so violently that day, taking his home and all his belongings with it. All he sees is the destruction and the intense anguish and distress on his mother’s face. And the worst part is, he can’t explain it. One minute life is good. The next it isn’t. It’s a hard lesson to learn so young.
Pablo’s mother Blanca looks like she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in a while. She probably hasn’t. “He was so shocked,” she tells me. “He was just looking at me and didn’t say a word. All the other children were crying and crying, but he didn’t say a word. He just hugged me. He couldn’t do anything else, just embrace me.”
I’m no child psychologist but Pablo’s behaviour strikes me as a form of post-traumatic stress. Children who experience trauma can often withdraw into themselves, unable to put words to their feelings because they’ve never felt anything like it before.
That’s why what we do is so important. It might not look like much, playing games, painting, running workshops on dealing with stress and anger, but there’s a method to it. Save the Children has developed the Healing and Education through the Arts programme, or HEART, to help children affected by serious or chronic stress to process and communicate feelings related to their experiences.
The healing process begins when a child shares their memories and feelings, either verbally or through artistic expression, with a trusted and caring adult or peer. The result is a child who feels less isolated and more connected and safe. This in turn can lead to a more confident and secure child, leaving them more likely to learn and feel hopeful for a better future.
Pablo joins the other kids of Huejotengo in the local’s school’s basketball court where Save the Children is running HEART activities. After some fun and games designed to make the children feel at ease and begin processing their experiences, they’re all given a large sheet of paper and paint. Pablo draws his house again. But this time a big yellow sun shines on it.
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