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Young Chinese Quake Victims Return to School

Thousands of schools were damaged or destroyed in the massive earthquake that hit China May 12. Now, young survivors are getting back to the classroom in the temporary shelters where they live, with no books, no desks and no idea when life will return to normal. Jamila Trindle reports from an evacuee camp in Shifang, in Sichuan province.

Children are going back to school in Shifang, just a few weeks after the earthquake left as many as five million people homeless.

But with more than 13,000 schools badly damaged or destroyed, many students are hitting the books in the tent cities they now call home.

On the outskirts of Shifeng, nylon tents extend for kilometers - home to thousands of earthquake evacuees from the town and neighboring communities. Students gather in one tent, sit on the floor and draw with donated paper and crayons.

Many of the classrooms are led by volunteers who traveled hundreds of kilometers to help.

Volunteer Han Zao He, who came from Hebei, says some of the children have only just started school and they need this kind of structure. He says the kids are very eager to start school - as soon as they come over they take a pen, take a notebook and sit down.

Nine-year-old Ye Jia recites a poem that the class just learned.

Shifeng, an industrial town with about 400,000 residents, suffered relatively moderate damage in the earthquake. Unlike in some communities, most buildings still stand, although many are cracked and unsafe. The city has become a center for evacuees from worse-off areas.

Parent Nuo Xue Mei is one of them. She can not stop thanking the teachers for coming to this tent city. She says the teachers know just how to make the kids happy again.

Holding her three-year-old son in her arms, she starts telling her earthquake story.

She was on the second floor and people shouted at her to jump, but she did not have the courage because she had her baby with her.

Her little boy stares up at her as she weeps. Nuo says she has no idea what she will do next. She wants to go back to her town and rebuild but the government has not told her whether it is safe yet.

Teacher Wu Bei came from Beijing. She teaches classes with puppets and other supplies that she brought with her. She had originally planned to travel to different shelters across the quake-stricken region, but that was days ago. After her first class, the children begged her not to leave. So she is still here.

Wu says that after living through the earthquake, the children feel very anxious and sad, some of them do not even talk. When they are with their parents, of course, their parents and everyone else is always talking about the earthquake and the disaster.

Their parents' stress adds to the children's grief for classmates lost in the rubble or homes that are gone.

Wu worries about how the children will handle the stress.

She has about 20 students in her class this afternoon. She says she knows the problem is much bigger than volunteers in makeshift classrooms can handle. And there is no plan yet for what these children will do in the long months it will take to rebuild their homes and schools.

Wu says it is time for the young survivors to get back to something resembling normal.

They have a children's world, she says, and they have to go back to that world. That is what is normal and healthy for them.