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Working with traumatised children in Haiti

What date is it today? A chorus of young voices tries to answer psychologist Dolyin Lymarie's question, some with more confidence than others. It's late morning on a recent Saturday in the SOS Children's Village Santo in Haiti and Dolyin Lymarie is sitting in a large tent with a group of children all around her.

SOS psychologist interacting with children affected by earthquake - CV Santo after the earthquake The children all live in the SOS Children's Village - but have just recently arrived following the earthquake that shook Haiti on the 12th of January 2010. 

SOS Children's Villages provides a safe haven for exactly such orphaned, abandoned and un-accompanied children and currently there are 509 boys and girls living on the premises of the SOS facility in Port-au-Prince - the Haitian capital. Before the earthquake that number was 150. Now the children have shelter and get a home-cooked meal three times a day. But it is also very important to provide emotional and psychological support to children with trauma. 

Dolyin Lymarie explains that today she is working with a group of children from age 6 to 10 and has organised what she labels "emotional recuperation activities". In their interaction with the professional SOS psychologist the children sing together, play games and are asked to make a drawing of a teddy bear - all as part of an effort to provide them with a space to express themselves and learn about their own body parts, so that they have the language to explain where it might hurt. Also, it is important to give the children a sense of self-value and that they are part of the SOS community.

Angie is nine years old and has no problem transporting her impression of the face of the yellow teddy bear, which Dolyin names Wilky, onto paper. Others have some difficulties and are more interested in when the juice waiting in the corner will be passed around."Before, the children who came here to the village tended to be much younger, but now its different. Those we see now are often older and have much more violent experiences, which sometimes manifests itself in aggressive behavior when they play with others. We try to work with all the children on an individual basis and make a psychological profile of each child. We observe them on their own and in groups, which allows us to adopt the method that will work best with each child," explains Dolyin Lymarie.

She is part of a team of five SOS psychologists currently engaged in working with traumatised children in Haiti. Reynald Laguerre is another SOS psychologist engaged in such work. In a tent not far away his group has been asked to make a drawing of a person. A simple exercise, which might speak volumes about each child. "If the pen lines are strong and drawn with a hard hand it can be a sign of aggression and if the lines are thin and barely visible, the child might suffer from low self-esteem and be weak," explains Reynald Laguerre and adds that if a child chooses not to use color it could be lacking affection.At the age of nine a child would normally add clothes to the person drawn, but if it is not there at that stage, or if it is still not possible to even see that the drawing is a person, the child most likely suffers some graphical-motorical problem.Reynald Laguerre reaches for a drawing from the stack. "Clothilde, 11 years", it says on the top of the paper. "Note that the drawing is on the lower side of the paper and do not take up much space. This is a sign of an introvert personality. Had the drawing been on the upper part of the paper it would have been opposite; an extrovert child," he says.

The person on Clothilde's drawing is not in color, does not have clothes and is not depicting anyone she knows. "A drawing of a family member says a lot about attachment and this particular child is timid and not as developed as others in her age group," the psychologist concludes."At first she really did not want to make the drawing at all." He calls out for her and a shy girl, who does not say hello or seek eye contact, emerges. She only whispers her name and age after being encouraged more than once.A drawing can reveal a lot about a child's personality and in SOS Children's Villages it is used as a way to add information to the personal profile. It is also a good way for SOS Children's Villages to identify, amongst all the new arrivals, who needs more attention.Following the large catastrophe one might expect many drawings of crumpling houses and lost family members, but as it is the psychologists do not, in fact, see a lot of destruction on paper. "Children aged 9-12 are often inclined to draw what they fear, but what we see is that once the child arrives in the SOS Children's Village, the safe haven they experience here is enough to make them adapt and let go of some of those fears," Reynold Laguerre says.  As for Clothilde. One day later she is scheduled for a one-on-one interaction in order to establish her situation and determine what can be done to assist her in her further development.