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Tsunami workers reflect on tour

Organizers and participants of a recent trip to the U.S. to tour Hurricane Katrina damage sites say the experience was a success.


Organizers and participants of a recent trip to the U.S. to tour Hurricane Katrina damage sites say the experience was a success and full of lessons.

The trip, organized by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), brought eight Indonesian tsunami relief workers to the U.S. in late March to learn more about the U.S. disaster response process. It was also a way for the Indonesians to give back to the U.S. after they had received so much help after the tsunami.

Dr. Rebecca Young, PDA's liaison for tsunami relief, said she agreed that the trip went very well. "I really had two objectives for them and both were met," said Young, who led the delegation and translated for them. "The first was to give them an opportunity to give back to the U.S., in a real way. The second thing was also to help them understand where the support for the tsunami comes from."

Young said many of the Indonesians on the trip thought the relief money sent to them from the U.S. came only from the government and not from the general American public. She said she wanted them to see the money came from regular people "who were moved by the tsunami and reached into their wallets to make a donation."

The chance to give back in a literal way came when the delegation took several days to work on hurricane-damaged homes in D'Iberville, Miss. Young said so many of the relief workers were on a level in their organizations that they weren't doing direct, hands-on work. Allowing them the opportunity to do something physical was important.

"It's the whole idea of wanting to do something, we all feel like that as human beings," explained Young. "To actually hammer a nail and hold the hand of a survivor and be with them in their place - it was a valuable experience for them to be connected to the Katrina survivors."

Ayu Prastiwi said picking the best part of the trip was hard, but if forced would choose the home repair work.

"Each (experience) has its own story and is enjoyable in different ways," said Prastiwi, a Church World Service worker in Indonesia. "I've never done such things hands on. It felt better knowing that we could do something directly for the people in need."

Reflecting on their weeks spent in the U.S. on the tour, the Indonesians took time this week to share via email what they took home with them. Prastiwi said she was impressed by the spirit of volunteerism in the U.S. and hopes that spirit can be created in Indonesia. "It's not common here, but maybe it can be socialized and introduced to the public. It would be nice if it can be implemented here. It gives spirits and psychological feelings to the beneficiaries noticing that many people care about them and want to help. It can reduce their sadness and trauma caused by the disaster.

"It can also be a (medium) to a society that wants to help. I am sure many people here want to do something with the resources they have but don't know what to do, how and where to go. Helping is not always by donation or materials. Sometimes it means more by giving sweat with direct interaction."

Dr. Sari Mutia Timur of the Yakkum Emergency Unit echoed Prastiwi's thoughts on volunteerism in the U.S. and Indonesia, and added that the survivors were amazing as well. "I was surprised by with the spirit of the Katrina survivors and the volunteers," said Timur. "The survivors are still optimistic. And even many of the volunteers are elderly but are enthusiastic to help the survivors."

Prastiwi agreed that she was surprised that so many of the volunteers were older Americans.

The two also agreed that they were shocked by the remaining destruction now seven months after Hurricane Katrina. "This made me learn that it is not easy to recover from disasters in rich countries," said Prastiwi. "I thought that a wealthy country like the U.S. would overcome such disasters very fast."

Some lessons learned from the U.S. disaster recovery process include notes on the search and rescue process, sanitary conditions at volunteer camps and disaster preparedness plans. Timur thought the "X" symbol spray-painted on searched homes could be very beneficial in her country. "It mentions the date of examination of the house and the total death number at the house. It's a very effective symbol to help prevent overlap with other (non-governmental) and (governmental) organizations checking the home."

Being a doctor, Timur was also impressed by the hands-free wash stations at the PDA Volunteer Village in D'Iberville. The stations allow volunteers to operate sinks and showers by using foot pedals.

She added that her organization's challenge now is to educate tsunami survivors and villages on having a disaster plan. "I saw American people and the government have a good plan in disaster response and preparedness. They also have a plan about the evacuation routes."

Prastiwi said the PDA Volunteer Villages are a marvel, noting that it's incredible to have such a large operation being so successful. "They're effective and efficient, well-organized, there's a delegation of duties, they fulfill primary needs, they have qualified workers and staff and they have a call center with information for volunteers and the public," she said.

For PDA's Young, the overall outcome of the trip was positive in many big and small ways. "Those two main goals were the big successes for me, but there are also 1,000 small things I never could have predicted, sort of serendipitous things," said Young.

She said when the delegation visited the devastated community of Pearlington, Miss., all were amazed and touched. "The residents there prepare the meals for the volunteers - it's their way of giving back. So we ate lunch with them everyday and went to their prayer meeting one night. It's an African-American Baptist church, so emotions are high there during the service. It was the first time (the delegation) ever saw a service with people responding back to the preacher and such. (The delegation) really responded to that and really connected. It was beautiful - I couldn't have predicted that or made it happen. It just did."

Young was also touched by how much the delegation wanted to get their hands dirty during the trip - especially because so many of them had never done that sort of work before. "I was so amazed by their willingness to work so hard. If I'd taken American doctors to tsunami relief and asked them to gut a house - many would have said no way. But theses doctors and workers were so willing to get dirty and sweat and work. They enjoyed doing it. This was really just beyond my hopes and dreams, it really was."

Due to the success of this trip, Young said there is talk at PDA about future similar trips. Some may happen with the U.S., but other destinations include South and Central America.

For Prastiwi, Timur and the others, saying yes to a future trip would take little thought. They all thanked PDA for the experience, with many saying it changed their lives.

"There (are) not enough words to express how thankful we are for all the hospitality and warmth we got. This was very successful," said Prastiwi. "Even though our time was short in the U.S., (PDA) managed to wrap a lot of things together for us, and the experiences were priceless. I am proud to be part of it and I would love to do it again. I gained lots of things from this; I increased my self-esteem, learned more how to appreciate things, found more value in my life and many other positive things.

"I also became more sure that we are all brothers and sisters without any borders between country, race, age, gender and religion. We are all one, under one roof, the roof of man-kind."

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