Cyclone Winston 6 months on: Recovery through play

Just Play Emergency Programme Coordinator, Salaseini in Savusavu. (UNICEF Pacific/2016/Hing)

“It is my passion to be involved in a programme that focuses on children,” said Salaseini, a Just Play Emergency Programme Coordinator with the Fiji Football Association.

For Salaseini, every morning it all starts with a ball. As a Coordinator in this unique programme, she is playing an important role in ensuring that children affected by Tropical Cyclone Winston once again have a safe place to play.

“The Just Play Emergency Programme has given me the opportunity to visit parts of Fiji I had never been to before, to talk confidently in front of large groups of people and, most importantly, to work with many children who have been deeply affected by the cyclone,” noted Salaseini.

Kids participating at the Just Play Emergency Programme Festival in Savusavu (UNICEF Pacific/2016/Hing)

Since the emergency programme began, children affected by Tropical Cyclone Winston have been filling school playgrounds around the country. The Just Play Emergency Programme, developed by the Oceania Football Confederation and UNICEF is helping children across Fiji to recover through sport and play.

Just Play uses football games as an opportunity to communicate critical messages around safe water, personal safety, preparedness and how to deal with emotional issues resulting from a trauma.

For children of all ages throughout Fiji, this was their first and only experience of an extreme tropical cyclone. As well as the physical impact, there was also an emotional impact. Trauma can be difficult for children to process and overcome and it’s also difficult for children to express when they are experiencing emotional distress.

A young student of the Kindy at Nasavusavu Public School in Savusavu (UNICEF Pacific/2016/Hing)

Trauma or emotional distress can manifest in many ways including children acting out of character, being clingy, not wanting to be left alone, excessive crying, withdrawing from others, and anxiety prompted by wind and rain. 
“We met lots of children who were noticeably affected by the Cyclone and its aftermath. Many had lost schools, homes, and belongings and no longer felt safe or secure. During the Just Play sessions, some children were relived to be away from the stressful recovery and clean-up process while others were ‘out of sorts’ and withdrawn. The games helped to bring everyone together and by the end of the sessions children were laughing, smiling and more at ease.”

The Just Play Emergency Programme, supports the emotional recovery of children after emergencies and is the only child-centred programme of its kind in Fiji. Through participation in sport-based games and activities, Coordinators like Salaseini are helping to support children to explore their experiences in a safe environment while also providing them with the opportunity to have fun.

Just Play mascot Pasifi-Ika having a dance off with one of the children participating in the Just Play Emergency Festival in Tavua. (UNICEF Pacific/2016/Palombi)

Salaseini and 385 volunteers have reached over 10,000 children in the twelve most affected areas of Fiji and the response they have received from communities has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We are all Fijians and Cyclone Winston affected our families and communities in lots of different ways. It feels really good to be able to help children throughout Fiji to come to terms with the aftermath of the cyclone and ensure they have the knowledge they need to stay safe and healthy.”

As part of the programme, teachers and community volunteers were trained to use this play-based platform to help more children share their stories, learn how to keep themselves and their families safe and understand better how they can help their community to recover.

The Just Play football is helping children in Fiji to more effectively navigate the many challenges left behind by Tropical Cyclone Winston. Did you ever think that a football could be so powerful?

By Melissa Palombi and Laura Gibbons, UNICEF Pacific