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Tsunami workers tour U.S.

Eight Indonesian tsunami relief workers toured hurricane-ravaged Mississippi last week.

BY HEATHER MOYER | D'IBERVILLE, Miss. | April 3, 2006

Citing the urge to give back to the U.S., eight Indonesian tsunami relief workers toured hurricane-ravaged Mississippi last week in a solidarity-boosting effort between the two nations.

The team is made up of doctors and disaster responders who helped after the devastating Indonesian tsunami in December 2004. They were also joined by one tsunami survivor. The doctors and relief workers are Action by Churches Together (ACT) Indonesia partners. The team arrived in the U.S. last week to tour the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast.

In a letter from an one of the team-member's organizations, the director expressed wishes to send a team over because of how much the U.S. supported Indonesia after the tsunami.

"I believe that people in New Orleans - victims of (Hurricane) Katrina - must have...also supported victims of (the) tsunami in Aceh with many kinds of support. If we rapidly provided help to Aceh and Nias, we are also eager to (see) what kind of help we can offer to the victims of Katrina to release some of their burden," said Sigit, the director of the Christian Foundation for Community Development Emergency Unit (YEU).

And so Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) brought the eight Indonesians over for a tour, with the goals of helping the Indonesians gain a wider perspective on U.S. disaster relief, providing capacity building for these ACT Indonesia partners and building solidarity between people of the two countries.

With temperatures dipping into the 50s on Sunday evening - considered 'freezing' by the Indonesians - the eight team members bundled themselves in blankets and listened to a brief overview of the disaster recovery process in D'Iberville. A small community situated just north of Biloxi, D'Iberville was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.

"We had 8,000 residents here before the storm, now that's at 5,000," said Ed Cake, noting that many residents had to leave the area because their homes were destroyed, uninhabitable or because their jobs were now gone. Cake is the associate director of volunteers and services for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) D'Iberville Volunteer Village.

"Almost 1,200 homes were uninhabitable after the storm and another 400 or so were just gone."

Several members of the Indonesian team asked questions about evacuation procedures during Katrina and who was hardest hit. To compare the responses of the U.S. and Indonesia, the teams frequently questioned the volunteer leaders and workers about the stages of recovery and how the entire process is organized.

"I want to learn about (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and hurricane-ready housing," said Dr. Edy Wibowo of YEU. "Also, I want to know how they kept the death toll down."

The team also shared frequently shared how their particular organizations responded in Indonesia after the tsunami. Wibowo's YEU sent in medical, water and sanitation teams to four devastated regions in Aceh and northern Sumatra. Sri Mariswaty of Strengthening and Raising the People Organization (SRPO) said her organization was focused on environmental activism and human-caused disasters before the tsunami, but their aim changed when the disaster hit. The organization spun off a new arm - SRPO - and worked in a very remote community that had been overlooked.

"No one went there for the first two weeks after the tsunami," said Mariswaty. "We were the only ones there helping for four months. We thought it was most important to reach those thought to be unreachable."

Getting involved

A hymn wafted out of a tent at the D'Iberville Volunteer Village early Monday morning. Inside, nearly 100 volunteers were gathered for the morning devotional. The Indonesian team went up front to lead a prayer in their native language and then sing. After the devotional time, many other volunteers greeted and chatted with them.

The team's escort and translator for their trip, Dr. Rebecca Young, watched the interactions with a big smile. "They're here to give back to us for all the U.S. did for them," said Young, PDA's liaison for tsunami relief. She added that the team was happy to be so warmly welcomed by all they met.

To learn more about the home repair and rebuild process, the team toured several homes being repaired by PDA Volunteer Village work teams. The Indonesians poked around gutted homes as the tear-out and rebuild process was explained. They polled PDA workers on how long the repairs can take, learned more about how volunteers are central to the recovery process, and picked up drywall - a building material not used in their home country.

Once familiarized with the process, the team then got their hands dirty by doing some repairs themselves. Teaming up with two other volunteer teams from Missouri and Ohio, the Indonesians learned to wire electrical outlets and mud drywall.

The crews meshed well together, with frequent bouts of laughter and smiles as the work continued into the evening.

"She can teach you after this," said one Missouri volunteer to another while teaching Ayu Kodrat, a Church World Service employee in Indonesia, to install a new electrical outlet.

"Good - I'll need all the help I can get," laughed volunteer Al Hinton.

"Hopefully I won't forget it all by then," said Kodrat, adding to the laughter. Hinton is in D'Iberbville with a team of 40 from First Presbyterian Church in Kirkwood, Missouri.

"This Indonesian crew is amazing," Hinton said.

The Indonesians expressed their gratitude at being able to actually get involved with the repairs. "This is great," said Wibowo, stripping a wire in a new outlet. "I'm learning to wire outlets. This is very different than the Indonesian electrical outlets. This is a new experience for me. I'm a doctor, after the tsunami I didn't have time to do housing work like this."

In the other home, volunteers sanded and then painted. "I'm very glad to do this, it's great to be able to do something hands on," said Kodrat. "I've learned electrical wiring and drywalling."

As volunteers laughed and worked, many remembered words from Ed Cake at Sunday night's orientation. "You are all God's messengers here - you are his servants. You are here to help."

That servitude also moved into Tuesday night's activity, when three of the Indonesian crew members slipped away to start another major task: preparing dinner for the Volunteer Village's nearly 100 residents. A traditional Indonesian dinner greeted the crews that evening and none of it was left by meal's end.

Reflecting on the differences

The team all agreed that the time spent meeting with disaster responders, homeowners and volunteers was an excellent learning experience. They spent much of their downtime discussing and comparing the two countries' disaster relief process.

"It's so well-organized and well-scheduled," said Marlon Lukman, a worker with the Foundation of Indonesian Disaster Response. "I'm impressed they teach the volunteers on-the-job. It's interesting that (PDA) can know how long a repair will take, it all seems very well-timed and planned."

The idea of volunteer labor was a common topic of discussion.

"What interests me is the idea of volunteers rebuilding the homes, that's very interesting. We don't have many volunteers in Indonesia - most people expect to be paid to do the work," said Kodrat. "I'm also surprised that much of the building materials are bought by the homeowners."

Novin Patanduk commented on the quality control of the repairs made by volunteers. "The building inspections are impressive and important," said Patanduk, who also works for Church World Service. "It's important that there's quality control and that everyone is supervised."

The homeowners themselves also fascinated the crew. "I'm so impressed by the spirit of the survivors," said Dr. Sari Timur, also of YEU.

Wibowo agreed. "I like how the people who own the homes also participate in the repairs."

They all agreed about the comparison of the disaster relief process between the two countries. "I have two words for the recovery there and here: very different," said Agung Hermawan of YEU. "The U.S. government doesn't provide as much help here as ours does for us. Plus, the U.S. gave a lot of money to Indonesia after the tsunami to build homes. Yet here they do not do the same. There are just different government strategies."

Hermawan also noted that the poverty levels between his country and the U.S. are different. "In Indonesia, our survivors become powerless. Indonesian people didn't save their money in banks. They buy land as their investment, and the disasters usually happen to poor regions."

Mariswaty agreed. "Sometimes the poor can only afford to buy land in difficult areas, such as by a river or a volcano, because they don't have a choice. Our farmers also become powerless when a disaster hits their land. They're left with nothing."

The crew is also keeping a blog during the trip, and summed up their feelings thus far in an entry from March 27:

"Before coming here, we thought all Americans were very individualistic. But now we see that it is not true - your sense of community and mutual support is strong in times like these, and we are very impressed to see the sense of volunteerism that is hard to find in Indonesia, where most people are simply trying to get by."

The crew became local celebrities during their time in the D'Iberville and Biloxi area. Some did radio station interviews and others were interviewed on television. They took the attention to heart, appreciative of the warm welcome.

Many local responders the teams met with thanked the crew profusely for traveling so far to help. "You all have made my day," said Ed Blakeslee, coordinator of Hurricane Katrina response for the United Methodist Church in Mississippi. "I get teared up thinking about people like you who come all the way here to help us."

The crew moves on from the D'Iberville area this week, continuing on with the rest of their U.S. tour. For the rest of the trip, the Indonesian team will go to other cities in Mississippi, speak at churches in Nashville and St. Louis, travel back down to Louisiana to tour disaster sites, and then wrap up the trip in Arkansas at the PDA call center.

All agreed that they will leave with lasting impressions from the U.S., including many new friendships and connections.

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Related Links:

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

PDA Indonesian Tour Blog

Christian Foundation for Community Development Emergency Unit (YEU)

YEU in Aceh and Nias

Church World Service

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