Caught in Burmese Cyclone, Professors Counsel Those Helping with Relief Efforts

Posted: September 22, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Professors counseling children
Mason professors Rita Chung and Fred Bemak helped Save the Children staff in Burma set up child-friendly places where children could be safe after the May cyclone disrupted their already-fragile existence.

By Jennifer Edgerly

When Fred Bemak and Rita Chi-Ying Chung arrived in Yangon, Burma, on May 1, they had no idea that Cyclone Nargis had shifted in the Bay of Bengal and was now headed directly for the impoverished country.

Bemak and Chung, professors of counseling and development in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), had previously visited Burma twice. Each time they had spent three to five weeks evaluating programs and training child protection staff of Save the Children, U.K, on counseling skills to help with efforts surrounding the issue of child trafficking.

When the professors returned in May to continue their training efforts, they assumed that this four-week trip would be like the others, with days filled with advanced-level training, including role playing and discussions about how the staff had implemented what they previously learned.

The Worst Natural Disaster in Burma’s Recorded History

Friday, May 2, started out as planned. Bemak and Chung met with Save the Children staff to discuss the progress they had made since their last meeting and resumed their training program. As the day wore on, rumors began to spread about the impending storm. Initially told there was a protest march and fighting, Bemak and Chung were later assured it was just raining and everything was okay.

“No one knew what was coming or that it was a serious storm,” says Bemak. “We did end our day early in anticipation of a storm, but nobody really took it seriously, and many of the ex-pats went to the British Club for drinks, laughing it off.”

Cyclone Nargis made landfall late that day and hit Yangon overnight, battering the city well into the next morning. Bemak and Chung spent the night in their six-story hotel not knowing if their room’s windows, which were rattling and leaking, would hold against the storm.

cyclone destruction
Cyclone Nargis turned homes into piles of matchsticks.

The next day, with destruction all around the city and no electricity, Bemak and Chung were cut off from the rest of their group. Late in the afternoon, one of the Save the Children staff members came to check on them after spending three hours clearing a path with a machete in order to drive through the downed trees blocking the roads. The trio then took an hour to drive two miles through rubble and fallen trees to the hotel that housed the rest of the Save the Children team.

“Word got out to the staff that we were at the hotel, and slowly they came out of their rooms and checked in with us,” says Chung. “Many of the staff had family in the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta area, and it was a very intense and stressful day for them not knowing if their family was dead or alive.”

A Crash Course in Disaster and Trauma Counseling

Effectively cut off from the rest of the world and trapped in Yangon, the group reconvened on Sunday, May 4, to support one another and talk about the situation. With a background in psychology and trauma, Bemak and Chung instantly recognized the importance of providing some sense of normalcy for the staff and offered their help.

It was during this time, however, that the situation in Burma went from bad to worse. A black market for rice and clean drinking water emerged, and gas prices soared from $2.50 per liter to $10 per liter. Aware that people were dying every day from lack of food and water and that the public health problem was growing, the Save the Children staff members mobilized to purchase and distribute rice and water to the hardest-hit areas.

“The staff who were in town for training on child protection were now going to be assisting with the relief efforts and would be seeing things they had never seen before,” says Bemak “Working in a wet, now moldy room with no operating toilet or available water, we immediately started training the staff on how to use the counseling skills they already had and began preparing them for what to expect when they arrived in the disaster areas.”

Before returning to Virginia in mid-May, Bemak and Chung also worked with Save the Children to set up child-friendly spaces in the disaster area where children were protected from traffickers, sexual predators and exploitation. Staff members were trained on how to assess children during play activities and how to set up a counseling space to meet their needs.

“With the exception of the Save the Children staff, child-friendly spaces were completely adult-free,” says Chung. “More than 40 percent of the population affected by the cyclone were children, and it was important to make sure there was somewhere for them to go to get food and feel safe and protected.”

Professor talking with children
Fred Bemak, left front, talks with Burmese children post-cyclone.
Photos courtesy of Fred Bemak and Rita Chung

Picking Up the Pieces and Moving Forward

Bemak and Chung returned to Virginia with new plans to return to Burma for five weeks at the beginning of July. Unlike previous trips, however, this one was funded by a wellness grant they co-wrote from the Norwegian government that focused on training Save the Children staff to identify the symptoms of trauma and burnout.

“There were endless stories of loss and pain that really drove home the impact this storm had on the people of Burma,” says Chung. “One young man told me about holding his younger sister and brother in his arms as a wave came in. When he opened his eyes afterward, they were gone. Another staff member shared a story about counting the dead bodies he saw in one day and stopping when he reached 200.”

While Bemak and Chung were no strangers to devastating situations – they went to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and counseled victims of the San Diego wildfires last fall through a program Bemak started called Counselors Without Borders – they were not prepared when they checked in to the same Yangon hotel in July and were given the same room they had stayed in the night the cyclone hit.

“It was really a strange experience,” says Bemak. “We were the keepers of the history of that room. We knew where the water stains on the rug and the curtains came from. It had been a major night in our lives, and walking in to that room again brought it all right back.”

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