Thailand Adventure

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Earlier this winter my two daughters and I found ourselves standing behind a rusty metal gate at the bottom of a steep dirt drive. After 3 days of travelling by planes, taxis, buses and finally motorbikes, we had finally arrived at Baan Unrak Children’s home in Sangklaburi Thailand. We had set off on this adventure around the world knowing that we wanted to go be of service, but had very little idea what we were going to find or what that was going to look like.

Baan Unrak was unimpressive at first glance. It was neat and tidy and rather quiet. A flock of geese honked at us as they strolled by. There were a few children down at the gate who were eager to greet us. One of them offered to help us find Didi. Didi Devamala is the founder of Baan Unrak. She has built the orphanage from the ground up and is the heart and soul of the place. We would rarely see her without a child on her shoulder or hip. On our walk up the hill I found myself suddenly filled with doubt. Would we fit in here? Would we actually be able to find ways to be of service? How would we overcome the language barrier? Have I just made the most gigantic mistake ever? Why do I always just jump? Can I turn around and run now? Fortunately the answer to the last question was no. The journey home to Vermont was too great. As we had nowhere to run, the only way out was through.

I sat before Didi that first time feeling so filled with inadequacy. Here was a woman who had single-handedly created a children’s home that houses and cares for 150 kids. Here I was, a silly western mother who had travelled half way around the world in the hopes of doing a few moments of good. I was the only one passing judgement. She welcomed us with open arms. She fed us, invited us to kiirtan and meditation with all the children and then had us tucked into our volunteer house for a much needed good night’s rest.

The next two weeks passed all too quickly. With the help of Didi and a wonderful crew of volunteers we quickly found our niche. We did art projects with the youngest of the children in the mornings. We worked on the farm making dirt, planting beans and picking cashews and jackfruit. We gave massages to both sick and healthy babies. We helped referee bicycle time and drove the kids to go swimming on the weekend. We even tried our hand at teaching English and worked with the children to make a sign board to take to market.

But really the projects we worked on were the least of it. It turns out that Baan Unrak is a truly amazing place. The power of our time there came, not from any one thing that we “did” but from simply being there and being with the children. It was so easy to see while we were there that what we were was enough. All we really needed to do was offer what we had. All we really needed to do was love. At Baan Unrak everything always seems to fall into place. Whatever is offered, whatever is present is exactly what is needed. The children there seem to inherently trust in this and in Didi. They come from varied and often traumatic backgrounds but the power of this place heals them. These children have so many smiles and so few tears. They gobble up the love and attention that is offered, not in a needy or hungry way, but in a way that says that they knew you would come and are glad you are here and also that they will be fine when you go.

Baan Unrak takes in children who have been hurt, and neglected, many of them coming from extremely traumatic circumstances, and gives them a safe and loving space. It takes hungry children and feeds them nutritious food. It takes children who had no hopes of a future and sends them off to school. But I think most of all Baan Unrak gives everyone there a sense of belonging. Didi shows these children every day in a thousand ways that she loves them and trusts in who they are. These children know their worth. They have an inherent grace and strength that will touch and transform anyone and everyone they meet.

In our time there we were privileged to come to know one little 12 month old girl who had first come to the orphanage five months before. At the time Ishvarii arrived she was very very sick. She ended up in the hospital in Bangkok in a coma and on a ventilator for months. When we met her she had been back at Baan Unrak for about 2 months. This little girl who had been at death’s door a few months ago was now the queen of the orphanage. She could not yet walk and no one knew if she ever would. She was showing developmental delays and no one knew how much, if any of that would resolve. She will likely face serious challenges for the rest of her life. But she had found a home. Her new family had rallied around her and donors from all over the world stepped up to get this child the treatment she needed to survive. You could see in watching Ishvarii get passed from child to child and in watching her ride around held close on Didi’s shoulder as she went about her day how lucky she was to be here and how lucky they were to have her. We watched Ishvarii transform in our two weeks there. When we arrived she would cry immediately as soon as whoever was holding her stopped walking. She needed to be in constant motion. She also couldn’t stand to have her hands or feet touched and would cry every time they tried to feed her. The last day we spent with her at Baan Unrak we were able to spend a few minutes sitting quietly with her while she smiled and without even noticing stood supported on her own feet. The Magic of Baan Unrak was working on her. She was unfolding. When we caught up with her again two weeks later in Bangkok at the end of our trip she enjoyed a few bites of food without crying and a couple of weeks ago Didi sent an email saying that she had begun taking steps. Ishvarii’s story to me exemplifies the power and the beauty of Baan Unrak. This little girl who surely would have died had she not ended up here is now thriving, inspiring smiles and opening hearts wherever she goes.

Baan Unrak transforms not only the children it houses, but also the volunteers who come to serve. I watched my own children unfold here. I watched tenderness and caring grow in them that I had never known was there. I watched confidence and trust fill in the spaces where doubt and fear had been. I wrote to a friend soon after I arrived that I had never felt so at home or so free of fear. My heart has never felt as it did in my time at Baan Unrak. I came with so much ego and left with so much peace. We had hoped to travel to Thailand and create positive change. We had no idea that that change would be occurring within our own hearts. Didi and the children and volunteers of Baan Unrak welcomed us wholeheartedly into their tribe. They made us feel we were one of their own. They shared their love and their grace and showed us who we were and told us that that was enough. They sent us off stronger and freer and we will carry that with us wherever we go. It was a thoroughly amazing adventure that has transformed each one of us individually as well as formed a bond between us that I am sure will last a life time. Their door is always open and they are in constant need of both funding and long term volunteers. They can change your life, and you can help be a part of changing theirs as well.

Jennifer Watkins is a nurse and mother of two, living in Central Vermont. For more information on the Baan Unrak Community, including the Children’s Home, School, Women’s Weaving Center and Animal Sanctuary, visit www.baanunrak.org or on Facebook.
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Nepal Update

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On April 25, 2015 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal,  killing close to 10,000 people, injuring more than 23,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, with entire villages flattened.  Continued aftershocks occurred throughout Nepal, with a major aftershock  in May which which left another 200 people dead and more than 2,500 injured. Many who had begun to rebuild their homes watched in despair as this aftershock once again destroyed everything.

AMURT & AMURTEL have been active on the Indian sub-continent since 1970, and therefore have a strong presence in the region. Hence our teams were able to mobilize quickly, with three teams from India joining their counterparts in Nepal to set up relief camps in nine earthquake-affected districts.

AMURT & AMURTEL volunteers provide basic supplies, such as essential groceries, tarpaulins and blankets, along with medical support through mobile clinics. In the first month after the earthquakes AMURT & AMURTEL has distributed food parcels to 15,300 persons, tarpaulins to 2,088 persons and 7,500 people have been treated by our medical volunteers.

With the coming of the monsoon rains, it became critical to get shelters set up. Rain, mosquitos, snakes- all worries added to the desperate situation so many thousands of families found themselves in. At the beginning of July Amurt and Amurtel teams partnered with 180 families to begin rebuilding homes, distributing sheets of metal roofing. As funds come in we will continue to help families rebuild.

AMURT & AMURTEL has begun training teachers to respond to trauma as they welcome back students that had been out of school since the earthquakes. The training consists of four days with two days reserved for theory and exercises and two days of practical coaching with the students back in school.  The training draws on multiple resources such as creative therapies, yoga and group therapies. As most schools were damaged or destroyed AMURT/EL has set up Temporary Learning Centers that starts with the students decorating their classrooms.

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Nepal Relief

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Teacher Training and Temporary Learning Centers in Nepal

The Nepali Ministry of Home Affairs confirmed a total of 488,789 houses destroyed and 267,477 damaged during the two earthquake period of April and May 2015. The death toll stand at 8,219 people and half a million buildings damaged or destroyed. In the most affected districts up to 80 % of the public schools are damaged or destroyed leaving most children out of school.. United Nations estimate 3 million people are in need of food aid.

AMURT & AMURTEL volunteers are busy day and night providing basic supplies, such as essential groceries, tarpaulins and blankets, along with medical support through mobile clinics. In the first month after the earthquakes AMURT & AMURTEL has distributed food parcels to 15,300 persons, tarpaulins to 2,088 persons and 7,500 people have been treated by our medical volunteers.

AMURT & AMURTEL is responding with relief teams in several locations and is appealing for donations.




  Read more

Nepal Earthquake

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After the deadly 7.8 earthquake hit central Nepal more than 2,500 people are confirmed dead and many more are injured or unaccounted for.

AMURTEL is responding with relief teams in three locations of Kathmandu, Sitamarhi, Siliguri and is appealing for donations.




Our fall travels to Lebanon, Malaysia and India

This year our fall travels took us to Lebanon, Malaysia and India. I was joined in the first two countries by fellow Amurtel board member Diane Alcantara. As usual with my international travels for Amurtel, time was short and the to-do list long. We had less than a month to visit projects, attend meetings and shop for this year’s International Boutique.

Lebanon

The focus of our visit here was a project for Syrian refugee children run by our partner AMURT. With their headquarters in the mountains of upper Chouf, we spent much of our time in the heart of the Druze community, about an hour outside of Beirut.

Over 2 million Syrians fleeing the civil war have poured into Lebanon so far. As most refugees had fled Syria with only the clothes on their backs, Amurt initially began helping families after they first arrived, providing clothes, household supplies and seed money to rent small apartments.

Over time, it became clear that although families were settling in, the children continued to be in a state of trauma and distress. One way children recover from the traumas of war and displacement is to attend school and become part of a community of peers. But many Lebanese schools were already struggling before the enormous wave of refugees. Now refugees fill 30% of the classes in some schools, becoming a considerable burden on strained resources. Due to this and other reasons, almost 50% of the refugee children have missed school for two or more years. And those who are able to attend face significant difficulties as a result of the horrific traumas they suffered from the war.

Amurt advocates for these children, offering psycho-social therapy to the children and their parents, and providing text books and school uniforms when necessary.  If school placements are unavailable, or if a child requires special preparation and emotional assistance before entering school, then the child is enrolled in the Child-Friendly Space model.

Child Friendly Spaces

Historically Amurt and Amurtel set up Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) immediately following a disaster, as we did most recently in Banda Aceh, Myanmar, and Haiti.  CFS provide a safe, nurturing environment and offers children a structured routine and engaging activities. The staff are trained to detect and respond to behaviors resulting from trauma, including, isolation, grief, and PTSD.  Additionally, the program in Lebanon provides individual and group therapy for the children, and pays school fees and arranges transport for the most vulnerable children spread throughout the mountains.

We spent 4 days with the staff, children and therapists, learning the background of the crisis, the development of the program and hearing of successes and challenges of individual children and families. We were invited to observe at the CFS, which is hosted in their own school building, complete with soccer field. During our discussions concerning the overall needs of this vulnerable community, we were invited by the program director to launch an Amurtel program for the women refugees.  After meeting with the women and hearing what their biggest concerns were, it was decided to begin with a project offering training to the women in sewing, thus setting up some economic security for their children and their families. I am quite excited about this new Amurtel initiative, and look forward to hearing from the women as they develop a greater sense of security and self-esteem.

Although we spent much of our time involved with the programs, we also joined the Amurt staff in an excursion to the Chouf Biosphere Reserve. What a grand adventure that was- driving up the 6,000+ mountains to sit under 5000 year old cedar trees, visiting ancient forts and temples, all the time surrounded by sweeping vistas that seemed to reach to the Mediterranean Sea .

As many of the larger markets were closed for holidays, we ended up visiting small shops scattered amongst the mountain villages- thanks to the connections and knowledge of our hosts.  We were also plied with amazing meals- the local Women’s Association hosted a delicious brunch they cooked on a traditional stove, and each member of the Amurt team seemed intent on outdoing themselves in introducing us to the incredible cuisine of the region. It was a given that each meal include olives and dates (from local groves), tahini and locally grown fruit. Then there were the breads! I am sure we were waddling onto the plane that would take us on to Malaysia!

Malaysia

Being my first time to Malaysia, I was immediately struck by the dramatic contrasts.  We stayed with friends in downtown Kuala Lumpar (KL), which is a very modern, bustling city. Side by side with gleaming shopping malls and large towers were peaceful Buddhist temples, lush green parks, complete with peacocks and other exotic birds, simple neighborhoods and always friendly people.

The first day in KL, we immediately jumped into shopping, with our first stop the Central Market. We were surrounded by goods from all over Asia and Indonesia, and even managed to buy some things from Borneo! A bit ironic, that in this very warm and humid climate we ended up buying warm woolen shawls and scarves- I’m still not sure how that happened.

One of the highlights of our visit was spending time with the Amurtel team. These dynamic women work tirelessly to provide aid to thousands after the many disasters that hit this region. They were instrumental in providing immediate relief after the tsunami in Banda Aceh and the earthquake in Padang, Indonesia. Currently they are working with displaced Sri Lankan families in Malaysia, as well as continuing on-going development programs in Indonesia. We spent two afternoons discussing Amurtel policy, strategy and approaches to the many challenges faced in disaster relief in this part of the world.

After saying goodbye to Diane, I was on my own as I flew into India. Arriving in Delhi was like coming home.  But because I had spent so much time already in Lebanon and Malaysia, there were few days to shop for the Boutique before leaving for Kolkata and meetings. I found myself going into whirlwind mode- flying from shop to shop, eating breakfast at 9pm, and basically trying to fit 8 days of shopping into 4. New and different was my mantra as I explored shops in back alleys I hadn’t seen before. Exciting but at times a bit dodgy!

Before traveling, I had read about the severe flooding that had swept through Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, in September. As this is home to many of the families we often buy carpets and scarves from in Delhi, I made a point of visiting each of the merchants I knew. It was heart breaking to hear their stories and see videos of homes being washed away; entire families being displaced by the flood waters and seeing the level of destruction that has hit this lovely city. So many of the merchants had their warehouses filled in preparation for the wedding season (October and November), and so lost all their stock. No one has insurance and with the harsh winter fast approaching, things are grim for the Kashmiri people.  This country reminds me a lot of Vermont in the spectacular scenery and seasons. And now like so many in Vermont after Irene, they too are having to reach deep to find the strength to push through this first difficult phase after the flood and work to rebuild.

Taking the overnight train to Kolkata gave me a chance to catch my breath before meeting with Amurtel directors from various countries. In Kolkata we reviewed long range plans for creating a leadership program for village women in countries hit by disaster, and ways to improve our programs for displaced children. It was very inspiring to hear from other team members of successful Amurtel programs in Africa, Egypt, South America, Nepal and India.

And then back to Delhi and flying home. It was a bit of a shock to go from the 93 degree weather of India to a snow storm on my arrival back in Vermont, but oh, the clean air!!! Delhi now has the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world, so to take a breath of Valley air after too many days trying to breathe the pea soup of Delhi was a gift. As it is in so many ways to come home to our small piece of paradise here.

This trip moved me deeply as I met with displaced families in Lebanon, hearing the horrors they faced from war and bombs; of sitting with my team in Malaysia and listening to the challenges faced by women who fled from torture in Sri Lanka, seeing the photos of tremendous loss in Srinagar, and as always, being aware of the grueling struggle so many families, so many women and children in the streets of India, face each day just to get food.

It is with a sense of deep gratitude I can return to Vermont, but one that carries with it a continued commitment to work in partnership with those struggling against seemingly overwhelming challenges. I have a deep faith that if we all reach across and grasp the hand of another, we can make a difference. This is at the core of our work with Amurtel.

I invite you all to this year’s International Boutique- Dec 6-13 at the Masonic Lodge on Rte 100 in Waitsfield. We will be selling all the beautiful things from this trip and others made throughout the year, with the profits supporting programs for women and children here in Vermont and around the world.