At one stop, a worker said a young child followed him around, tugging at his sleeve, asking him if he could help find his mother. A team delivering food told them about stopping at a three-story monastery crowded with hungry refugees but only having enough rice to feed the first two floors of people.
Chung and Bemak talked to the relief workers about the need to support one another, the importance of taking time each day to get together, and how to comfort children separated from their parents. According to government estimates, the cyclone killed 78,000 people, and another 56,000 were reported missing.
Supporting relief workers wasn't the original plan for the two psychologists. They first traveled to Myanmar in March 2007 at the invitation of Save the Children, a U.K.-based nonprofit agency dedicated to improving the daily lives of impoverished children in developing countries. At that time and during another trip, Chung and Bemak traveled throughout the country, meeting with local people and studying the impact of human trafficking on local communities and the larger society. Every year, an unknown number of Myanmar men, women and children travel to Thailand and China for work, promised jobs as maids, waiters and factory workers. But many young women end up coerced into prostitution or working in sweatshops under abusive conditions, and what little pay they earn often goes to paying off bogus "debts" to the trafficker who slipped them across the border. However, if they can muster as little as the equivalent of $2 to send home every week, it keeps their families from starving, Chung says.
Despite their sacrifices, and because of the sexual exploitation and abuse some of these people endure, they face stigma when they return. Bemak and Chung hoped to develop programs to help women and children reintegrate into their families and communities, but their mission changed dramatically on May 1 when the cyclone struck.
Chung and Bemak rode out the storm on the fifth floor of their hotel, as wind gusts topping 100 miles per hour shook the building. By morning, rainwater seeped into every room from broken windows.
"There were trees, six feet in diameter, blown like toothpicks, just fallen all over the place," Bemak says.
After the cyclone, Chung and Bemak kept working in the country until their visas expired in mid-May. When they got home, they immediately started planning to go back. Working with a colleague, they wrote a grant proposal to provide training to Save the Children and relief workers from international humanitarian organizations, funded by the Norwegian government.
At Monitor press time, Chung and Bemak were scheduled to return to Myanmar for the month of July and early August to deliver comprehensive self-care training for the Save the Children relief workers.
"They are helping to fulfill an important need of caring for relief workers who will offer direct assistance to survivors," says Margie Schroeder, director of APA's Disaster Response Network.
For more information on ways psychologists can help in international emergencies, read the APA Statement on the Role of Psychologists in International Emergencies.