Dr. Roshan Khatri knows that the emotional wounds of natural and man-made disasters linger long after roads are rebuilt. And those wounds aren’t just adult-sized. The medical director of the Headwaters Relief Organization — a Golden Valley-based nonprofit run by volunteers — has seen the devastation wrought by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal, an Ebola outbreak in Africa and a refugee crisis in Greece. Everywhere, he also saw children trying to make sense of their changed world and showing tremendous resiliency. Headwaters is taking a novel approach to supporting them: Award-winning children’s books in many languages, distributed free with teaching guides. Khatri, 32, tells us more here.
Q: Congratulations on three recent awards for your children’s books. Why is this model effective in helping children deal with crises?
A: Storytelling is a powerful tool in disaster recovery. Children make sense of the world through stories, beginning with those their parents tell them. Each book addresses normal emotional responses to disaster, whether it’s Ebola or an earthquake.
Q: Responses such as?
A: Children might have stomachaches or headaches. They might be reluctant to go to sleep or have nightmares. They might blame themselves: “If I had done my homework that day, or if I had eaten my vegetables, the earthquake would not have happened.”
Q: Are these reactions long-term?
A: Most are temporary. We are there to help them build coping skills and to support their development of resiliency. Disaster relief isn’t just materials brought in. Mental health support is equally important.
Q: And not just for kids. I imagine your efforts help parents, too.
A: Adults feel the same emotions and have the same reactions. As they use these books, they are able to understand their own feelings and begin to heal themselves.
Q: You have published six books in five years. Tell us briefly about each.
A: The first book, released in Haiti in 2014, was called “When Haiti Shakes,” to help children understand and react to earthquakes. It was followed by “When Strong Winds Blow,” about Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, then “Nepal Quake,” in response to the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal. “When the Great Sickness Came” explores the emotions and losses experienced by children related to the Ebola outbreak; “Home is Where The Honey Is” was inspired by and written in collaboration with the women of the Melissa Network helping refugee girls and women in Greece. The sixth is “The Savage Wind,” which dealt with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
Q: Very different challenges. Do the books carry a common theme?
A: Yes. It’s that children can play a role in building resiliency. That is key for the entire community. When schools finally reopened in Haiti, for example, the whole community was back on track.
Q: Who writes the books?
A: We generally have children co-author the books with adults, because their stories are more relatable to other children. But each book is rigorously reviewed by child psychologists, trauma experts and others to make sure they are accurate and culturally appropriate. We have two different sets of translators to make sure we understand the culture. And we don’t just send the book. We typically bring them ourselves so we can train the caregivers on how to use them with children.
Q: Was one book hardest to write?
A: The Ebola book, designed for children in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, was the first book to deal with death. That was a big change for us. It wasn’t a natural disaster. We had to tackle what it means to be an orphan. The refugee book set in Greece was another tricky one. The refugees have come from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq. They speak different languages, have different cultures and reasons to flee their homes.
Q: How did you handle that?
A: Five languages and one shared theme: honey. Honey is something used and valued in each country.
Q: The books’ paper is quite durable — intentional?
A: We use the most sturdy paper. We want maximum use from the books. We want them to be passed from one child to another. A single copy is used by 10 children.
Q: Do you charge for the books?
A: Headwaters (headwatersrelief.org) donates all the books to the affected communities. The artists and the writers volunteer their time; printing is financed through fundraising. We have about 5,000 books in total.
Q: What’s next up?
A: Another book about Nepal, focused on girls’ rights and health.
Q: How did you find your way to Headwaters?
A: I was working for the Ministry of Health in Nepal as the primary physician in a district hospital. In 2015, the big earthquake hit. Headwaters sent a team to help our staff. They later asked me to join them on their trips, including working in Greece in 2016. In 2017, I came to the University of Washington on a Fulbright Scholarship and moved to the Twin Cities after that. This is passionate work for me.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received regarding the books?
A: The demand is great. People start crying. We work on donations and we cannot meet the demand.