Children in Myanmar may be forced to attend school in relief camps and tents because 85 percent of the educational buildings have been destroyed or damaged in a cyclone-ravaged region, the U.N. said Wednesday.
With the school year slated to begin June 1, UNICEF said there is no time to rebuild the estimated 2,700 severely damaged primary schools used by 350,000 students or to replace the unknown numbers of teachers killed or missing following the storm.
Instead, the focus is on training volunteer teachers, providing as many as 300,000 school kits for affected students and setting up schools in temporary locations as soon as possible using tarps, tents and even bamboo.
"Children have been through a terrible tragedy and trauma," said Cliff Meyers, UNICEF's regional education adviser. "Research shows that getting back into a normal pattern represented by attending schools really helps them adjust to the tragedy and overcome the horrors they have been through."
The U.N. is hoping to reach the likes of Tin Soe, who this week was begging on the streets of Yangon with his grandmother. His family lost their home in the disaster.
"We are here to help mother make some money so we can eat," the child, Tin Soe, said softly. "We are hungry."
Asked if he thinks his school will be rebuilt before the school year begins, he scratched his head and said: "I don't know. I hope so. I miss my friends and my teachers."
Richard Bridle, another UNICEF official in Bangkok, said that getting children back to their classrooms is good for adults, too.
"It gives parents breathing space to think about things other than the immediate survival of their families," he said.
Guy Cave, deputy country director in Myanmar for the private aid group Save the Children, also supports the goal of setting up temporary schools as soon as possible.
But he said that doing so by June 1 would be difficult, given many areas still have "not been reached with food and water let alone school equipment."
"In many of these places, it will take longer than that to get up and running. It will be an enormous logistics challenge," Cave said.
The group received a boost Wednesday when the humanitarian organization founded by George Clooney and other "Ocean's Thirteen" stars announced it would donate $250,000 to help survivors in Myanmar. Not On Our Watch said it will provide an additional matching contribution of up to $250,000 for every dollar donated to its emergency relief fund for cyclone victims.
Cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar's Irrawaddy delta, and the United Nations and the Red Cross have suggested the death toll is likely to exceed 100,000.
Children were especially hit hard. UNICEF estimating a third of those killed were young people, based largely on population data from the affected areas.
"If you are small, you are more likely to be killed than if you're big," said UNICEF's Bridle.
Reports from the delta tell of village upon village ruined by the storm waves. Scores of families were killed and heart-wrenching photos often show the bodies of children.
"Our figures in the camps show a lot of adults, but very few children and very few elderly," said CARE Australia's country director in Myanmar, Brian Agland. "In one village there were 500 survivors and they were all adults."
The crowded, makeshift shelters built by survivors have forced orphans and separated children to live alongside strangers, often in dark areas with little supervision.
UNICEF warned that those children could be at risk of human trafficking and even sexual abuse in chaotic refugee camps.
"We are really concerned about the risk of exploitation and sexual abuse," said Anne-Claire Dufay, chief of UNICEF's child protection section in Myanmar. "If they don't have private sleeping spaces, it could be an issue."
Dufay said Tuesday there had been one report of the attempted trafficking of a teenage storm survivor in the country's largest city, Yangon, but so far no confirmed reports of sexual abuse.
Similar concerns were expressed following the 2004 tsunami, but little evidence of such problems emerged.
To counter those fears and provide a safe environment for children, the United Nations and several non-governmental organizations have been setting up scores of youth centers, where the young can talk about their concerns in a safe environment and can play games, sing and study.
"It helps these children go through the process of grief and shock more quickly," said Laura Blank, a spokeswoman for World Vision, which is setting up 37 centers to serve up to 3,700 youngsters in and around Yangon.
"When the children have a chance ... to play and sing, you create an environment where they feel like it is OK for them to be kids again."