The ways that school-age children experienced the after-effects of the Christchurch earthquakes have been documented in a new University of Otago study.
Geography Associate Professor Claire Freeman and colleagues Megan Gollop in the University's Centre for Research on Children and Families, the Centre Director, Associate Professor Nicola Taylor, Dr Karen Nairn from the College of Education and Ros Herbison - set out to give voice to the children's' experiences of relocation and dislocation after the traumatic events.
They talked with 38 primary school, 38 Intermediate and 18 secondary school-age pupils – 94 in total – whose lives were disrupted as a result of the Christchurch earthquakes.
Interviewed six to nine months after the February 2011 quake, the children were living in Dunedin, Central Otago or Christchurch.
“Well I was happy because I got to see other people, but I was sad too that I wasn't in Christchurch with my family. And I was excited and sad.” (9 year-old boy)
All but eight had experienced some form of relocation, having to leave their homes either temporarily or more long-term. Nearly half of the children had moved to Dunedin or Central Otago and were currently enrolled in schools there. The remainder had experienced relatively short-term temporary moves within Christchurch or to another location before returning to the city.
Researchers found that by far the majority of the children left their homes as a result of the February quake. Most of the moves were sudden, unplanned and occurred either the same day or one to two days after the earthquake. Reasons for leaving included their house or land being unsafe or uninhabitable, a lack of services, or for education reasons. Many children said the move was due to the stress of the earthquake and ongoing aftershocks.
Associate Professor Freeman says the preliminary findings show that the children who left Christchurch experienced a huge sense of loss, in some cases leaving family members, friends, pets, belongings, their homes, schools and communities behind. The suddeness of these moves meant that children had very little time to say goodbye to friends.
“What also came through was the sheer complexity of the children's situations; how they rarely experienced a simple A to B move.
“Some had to move multiple times, with members of their families going in different directions. We found this was particularly hard on families where living arrangements were already complex, such as for those whose parents were separated,” she says.
The types of accommodation they moved to included tents in the backyard, camping ground accommodation, relatives (by far the largest group), friends, others' holiday houses and motels and rental accommodation. On only 28 occasions, the children eventually moved back to their original house. For the majority of the children who left homes one or both parents made the decision.
“For some families there really was no alternative but for parents to make the decision to move, but also we found that young people needed to have more of a voice when it came to talking about how the earthquakes and moving away from Christchurch were impacting on them,” she says.
“The effect of the earthquakes was long lasting. Recurrent earthquakes kept the trauma alive for families, as did moving and changing scenarios with the state of their homes. Some children have had to deal with the fact that they didn't know and, in some cases, may still not know whether the move is temporary or not,” Dr Freeman says.
The young people answered that the most difficult aspects of moving were leaving friends and family behind, the education differences in the new places they went to and adjusting to their new location. Many still thought of Christchurch as home and would like to live there again in the future.
However, the majority of those children who had moved relatively permanently had settled in well to their new communities and schools. They were relieved to be away from the aftershocks and enjoyed new experiences and making new friends.
“Without downplaying the impact on them, the children still showed a huge amount of resilience and strength,” she says.
The team also talked to 20 teachers, principals and an administrator from schools where earthquake-affected children had enrolled, often at short notice.
The strong message that came from the school staff was that they saw their main job as keeping children safe and providing a 'normalising' environment while the parents sorted out their lives.
Some of the perspectives the young people expressed:
“We can't really decide where to live. I want to live in Christchurch but then again I don't. I had such a fantastic life there when there were no earthquakes and then they happened.....it was good before. I would go to school. It was normal and then this happened, and I'm at some school with no friends.” (boy,12)
“At first I didn't want to go. I wanted to stay in Christchurch and help everyone. Then I realised it was for the best....I feel a little guilty that I've left there. Abandoning Christchurch you could say.” (boy,16)
“It was a bit scary moving down from Christchurch because I didn't know the people there and I didn't know where we would be going to a different school. But when I got there it was heaps of fun.” (girl,10)
“I know I wasn't really happy with my parents being up in Christchurch. I didn't really feel completely comfortable...I was worried about them being up there, and obviously, that we're not there with them, like we were not together, that we were separated, it wasn't great.” (girl,15)
“People would ask about where I came from without even thinking it would hurt or be difficult for me to talk about it....(they) asked heaps of questions because they just didn't understand. I just kind of got a response to come up with: Yeah, it was hard. I was pretty blunt about it.” (girl,14)
“Away from quakes and aftershocks. Everyone is really nice in Dunedin. We get to live by the sea. I love my new school and it's been good making friends.” (girl,16)
“Keeping safe...Just wanted to be safe and not in a shaky town.” (girl,11)
“I do miss my friends in Christchurch a lot because I didn't actually get to say goodbye to them.” (girl,14).
“I was upset because I don't like not living with my mum, like not having her around me. I wasn't too sure of what I wanted. I don't want to leave my Dad, I don't want to leave my mum and I was really confused.” (girl,16)
“I had to get rid of so much. I had quite a lot of toys that my Nan that died gave me. I had to get rid of a lot of them that was quite sad. I've had to get rid of quite a lot of stuff, like teddy bears from when I was about one and stuff like old memories and things. I've kept all my pictures and all our books.....” (boy,12)
“I was really sick after the earthquake, so I became really stressed and I had high blood pressure and I kept fainting.” (girl,15)
“We were sick of having to go through it and we were sleep deprived, we were really stressed and we were just over it, like everyone else. So we just couldn't take it anymore. It completely sucks and is horrible.” (girl,17)
“I don't like to take long showers because I'm always afraid that, you know, something might happen. I have bad dreams sometimes.” (girl,17)
“It's not that great for me because a truck drives past me; it rumbles and shakes....” (boy,12)
“We got to the airport, and we just got onto the plane and I basically cried the whole way because I missed my Dad...we were still in our school uniforms.....And finally when we got up to Grandma's and she just gave us bags of clothes, and toys and everything. We just had to leave....I was absolutely confused. What I wanted most was to get out of there.” (girl,10)
“It's actually been very good. I have had a very nice time and met some awesome friends. I love the school.” (girl,10)
“Not feeling like I'm in the right place. Like most of the time I wake up expecting to be in my room in Christchurch but I'm not.” (girl,14)
Associate Professor Claire Freeman
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Department of Geography
Tel 64 3 479 8785
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