Research project focuses on healing and cultural restoration

With any kind of catastrophe, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti, helping victims cope and figuring out what to do differently in the future can take years. This is something York social work Professor Renita Wong knows a thing or two about.

Following the 2008 8.0-magnitude earthquake in the Sichuan province of China, Wong has been working with students at Beichuan Middle School in one of the hardest hit counties of the country. She is part of an art-based participatory action research project focusing on healing and cultural restoration, which could lead to changes in the way China responds to disasters.

Over 70,000 people in Sichuan province died in the earthquake. Beichuan Middle School, which teaches students from Grade 7 to 12, was at the centre of the disaster. It is the only complete high school in Beichuan, which is the only autonomous county of the Qiang ethnic minority. For parents in the area who want their children to go to college or university, this is the school they send them to, and most of the students live there as their homes are too far to travel from daily.

Left: A workshop run by Renita Wong with Grade 12 students at Beichuan Middle School in China

More than half of the Beichuan Middle School’s approximately 3,000 students and teachers were killed in the quake. Most survivors lost loved ones. “Seventy per cent of the Grade 10 students died and quite a lot of the teachers,” says Wong. “This is an ethnic minority area, so it is not only the loss of life, but a cultural loss as well.”

The high number of casualties at the school has drawn national attention, including about seven visits from Premier Wen Jiabao of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the past year. The school has received some 600 computers, athletic shoes, shirts, stationery and more, but there has also been a lot of pressure on the students and teachers to perform. It was the first school to start classes after the earthquake, and the nation was watching to see their recovery defined in terms of their academic performance in the university entrance public exam.

Right: Beichuan immediately after the earthquake

Wong has been part of the Post-Earthquake Community Rebuilding and Cultural Restoration Project in Sichuan, China in collaboration with Long Di and her team from the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Timothy Leung and his team from the Department of Social Work of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “We wondered, ‘How can the culture continue and be sustained with the loss of the younger generation?’,” says Wong.

When the earthquake happened, Wong was already in Asia and was on her way to Beijing regarding another research project. Long Di asked Wong to come to Beichuan – a four-to-five hour trip by plane and ground transportation from Beijing. At that time she stayed a week. “Everything was quite chaotic,” says Wong. The quake affected the urban areas as well as the rural areas in the mountains. “Tens of thousands of people were all relocated to different sites.”

Left: Renita Wong

Many of the students were not able to go home immediately to see their families. Some whole villages were buried, some were later flooded. The students were anxious for news. Finally, the younger junior-high students were allowed back home, and when they returned to the school site “they were much calmer,” says Wong. “We wanted to reconnect them with their families at a deeper level and reconnect them with their cultural roots and the land because the whole land shook. As a rural area, they are close to the land.”

Wong and her fellow collaborators wanted the participants involved as active partners in the design of the research. “The purpose and the result of the research has to be directly tangible to them,” says Wong. “It has to have a direct implication and relevance for them.” The research also needed to be a form of healing.

It was decided that it would be an oral history action research project involving photographs and art for Grade 11 and 12 students (who were in Grade 10 and 11 at the time of the quake). The students would talk to an elder in their family or their village, listen to their life stories, ask how they coped with difficulties in their lives and identify their indigenous cultural resources. “With creative art media, the students will weave together a collective narrative in the latter part of the project, representing the cultural strengths and the healing journey of individuals, families and communities,” says Wong. That way the students could own their history and gain strength from the weaving together of a collective story of resilience.

Right: The temporary site of Beichuan Middle School

Wong returned again last summer for over a month, working with the students and figuring out where they were now, one year later. About 30 students went home and interviewed an elder and/or took photographs of significance to them. The students will put the stories together with the photos. “It is a story of healing, a story of resilience and of finding different forms to represent this,” says Wong. “It actually helped them to know their families and know the history of their village way more than they did before. They feel a lot more grounded.”

Left: Beichuan after the earthquake

The teachers at the school have said this group of students is able to concentrate better and have better relationships with their peers, and that their sense of hope for the future has increased.

What this project shows, says Wong, is there are ways to approach traumatized teenagers that involve them in the process rather than assuming expert knowledge in providing psychological or trauma counselling. Wong and the team felt the systemic and community determinants of healing were being ignored.

Based on the results of their research, the team plans to make recommendations to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China on the national post-disaster psychosocial healing and education policies in China.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer