In Tsunami Relief Camps, Kids Sing Their Hearts Out

Article excerpt

Zulkiran Minrukom bounds to the stage at Blang Krueng relief camp, grabs a microphone like a Vegas lounge singer, and then turns to face the formidable crowd ... and freezes.

Blink, blink. He just needs to start singing and he'll warm up.

Blink, blink. Any song will do. "Old MacDonald." "Smoke on the Water."

Blink, blink. Perhaps we should give him some time. After all, Zulkiran is only 5 years old and this is probably his first singing contest. Blink. Deep breath, and finally, he warbles a love song about a girl named Zahra. The crowd breathes a sigh of relief.

Welcome to PM Idol, a contest run by the Indonesian Red Cross and modeled loosely on the "American Idol" television show. It's part of a psychological support program offered to children, like Zulkiran, who are survivors of last year's Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 200,000 and left more than 500,000 homeless. Organizers say giving children a chance to express themselves through song or poetry allows them to draw on inner strengths that every child has, and is a crucial step toward normalcy.

"We always work with teaching the idea that 'I have something, I can do something, and I am something,' " says Amin Khoja, a psycho- social programs specialist for the American Red Cross, which helped the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) to develop the PM Idol program. "Children can perform something, and when they build their internal resources, they can do something more. Because of this disaster, children have lost parents or teachers, they have lost their inner resources. So we hope this helps them to rebuild their own resources."

Participants in the contest become stars not just in their relief camp, in front of other children and parents, but also on weekly radio talk shows, hosted by PMI psychiatrists or counselors every Friday night. The top three winners for each category - singing for boys, singing for girls, and poetry reading - are recorded and replayed across the province.

The idea for the contest was serendipitous, but sprung from the Indonesian culture's profound love of music. A few months back, the Red Cross had been showing cartoons at a relief camp on hygiene and other issues when the projector broke down. While technicians struggled to get the projector working, two little girls took a microphone and began singing popular Indonesian songs. The crowd went wild.

Now, for the month of December, Red Cross workers are fanning out to relief camps in Banda Aceh and surrounding villages, conducting two local contests per week. …