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Child Friendly Spaces in a hostile environment

In the white afternoon sun and dust, about a dozen children run through the barbed wire gate of the camp to one dirt hill after another, urging their plastic bag and stick kites into the air. Their numerous brothers and sisters stay behind with parents or the families living in shelters close to their own, sitting in shade where they can find it, fanning themselves in the relentless heat. Behind where they sit are five hundred families more, all sharing six latrines and with no access to water. While the rain would be a welcome relief, it would also destroy the shelters, mostly constructed of cardboard boxes and old T-shirts whose colors and designs have long since faded in the sun.

More than 60,000 people have left the Dominican Republic to live in camps like this. After the Supreme Court of the Dominican Republic agreed two years ago to uphold a law stripping citizenship from thousands of people of Haitian descent living in the Dominican Republic and an increase of acts of racism and intimidation against Haitians in the country, many Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans have settled in camps just across the Haitian-Dominican border with little water, food, and support of any kind.

It is in this environment, where children have little to nothing do all day and find their educations disrupted that AMURTEL has begun offering summer camps for youth. In two of the three camps in the southern border area of Ansapit, AMURTEL offers summer camps for about 200 young people. The camps provide children with educational activities, a hot meal and water, and time to play and be kids.

In a recent study, Columbia University and World Vision found Child Friendly Spaces like these summer camps to be effective in providing psychosocial support to young children experiencing trauma. “CFSs provide young people with a safe place to play…and experience healing from any trauma they’ve experienced. They also allow children to return to healthy routines and experience a sense of normalcy again,” says Health MacLeod of World Vision.

Child Friendly Spaces are nothing new for AMURTEL Haiti. Since 2010, after the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince, AMURTEL has facilitated activities for displaced children and children living in poverty. Now, as the crisis of displaced people worsens along the Haitian-Dominican border, AMURTEL, which has worked in Ansapit for almost ten years and runs schools and empowerment programs in the area reaching more than 700 families, is well positioned to support these vulnerable individuals and, in particular, children, for whom the trauma of relocation, hunger, and insecurity is most acute.

In fact, in enrolling children in the camps, the biggest challenge that AMURTEL staff faces is limiting the size of the camps to a group facilitators can manage. With more funding, AMURTEL could expand the size of these summer camps and provide more robust meals to the participating children.

Mcleod describes, “We know the long-term impact of [children’s] exposure to traumatic events can be huge if not addressed.” It is precisely as these families decide where to go next and how to manage their family’s new and uncertain future outside of the Dominican Republic that their children are most vulnerable. And it now that proven programs like Child Friendly Spaces are most important for those children’s futures.

NEPAL doctor’s report

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Here is an account from Dr. Fazila Lalani, an ER physican from NY, who volunteered with Amurt Amurtel in Nepal immediately after the earthquake there in May.

So, I arrived safe and sound, with amazing hosts who speak perfect English (which is great because a giggle erupts every time I try my Hindi). At every meal, someone keeps refilling my plate over and over, saying “Doctor, you have to work, we can’t have you go hungry!” Needless to say, I’m well taken care of.
Being here is obviously extremely sad, but it’s amazing to be living in a world, albeit briefly, where everyone only has helping others on the mind, 24/7. It’s wild to watch everyone rally for endless strangers, stay up till the late hours coordinating donations, trips, transportation, supplies…one volunteer turned around and drove back from a trip to the Indian border to buy more Tarps because there are none to be found in Kathmandu. Just image a world like this every day, everywhere. Image how successful a society we would be?
I’m working with an organization called AMURT/AMURTEL that I came across while in Haiti in 2010.  Just a glimpse of what we’ve been doing: two days ago, a group of us- 3 doctors and 6 volunteers, drove 4 hours (110 kms) from Kathmandu on a gorgeous but scary mountainous road to one of the many villages in the Himalayan mountains that was devastated by the quake.
We set up 3 tables in front of the makeshift tent Police Station around 3 pm and saw patients until dark. We stayed in a little motel in the town which was completely empty, even the owners and staff slept on sheets on the ground floor, fearful that the earth would shake again. (There are multiple small quakes throughout the night, few that my sound sleeping self ever witnessed but definitely a conversation topic every morning over tea. Oh wait, one just hit right now! Probably just a 2-3 on the Richter scale, it lasted about 2-3 seconds and felt like the first rattle when your roller coaster is about to take off.
I awoke to the most beautiful dew over the Himalayan Mountains and meditated with my team at 5 AM. We started the Medical Camp again at 6:30 and saw another 100 patients in 3 hours. Tarps and bags of rice were distributed to the families whose homes were the most destroyed and I will remember their expressions of appreciation for a long time to come.
A pick-up truck drove us down an extremely bumpy 30 minutes into a village deep in the Himalayas. Our first village for medical relief aid was Farsidol Village, roughly a 2-hour drive from Kathmandu. The villagers lined up as soon as they heard our car. I’ve travelled remotely before but this was definitely the “remotest”, and also most beautiful and most appreciative place I have ever been. We saw another 130 patients and witnessed an endless number of brick and mortar homes crumbled into pieces and the locals working endlessly to put them back together again.
When we returned to our car back on the main road, another 50 people were waiting for us. We set up camp at the local farmer Potato Co-op, which provided great shelter as we saw farmer after farmer in the pouring rain.
We returned to Kathmandu after a long day, seeing over 300 people, and found the volunteers who stayed back, working hard on the phones trying to collect supplies so we can do it all again today.
Needless to say, I feel so fortunate to be a part of this team. If you ever have an opportunity to give back, jump on it. It feels so good. Actually, I take that back…seek out the opportunity…you’ll get more out out of it than you could ever give.

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A week in Haiti

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Haiti: it will break your heart and rebuild it in the same breath. This was my experience throughout our five day visit this spring. It is a place of poverty and scant opportunity, but also a home to strong, capable, caring people who long for the chance to build a better life for themselves and their children. Didi Jiiva Prema, the director of Amurtel Haiti, has created successful and empowering programs dedicated to help them do just that. A children’s home, three schools, micro-credit and Self Help groups for women, teen girls after-school programs, and computer literacy classes are just some of the projects Amurtel runs that make meaningful differences in the life of the women and children in the camps and small villages.

Arriving at the children’s home in Bourdon Port au Prince we find a place of controlled chaos that seems to runs on love. Managing a household of seventeen children under the age of eight requires a deep calm that is the bedrock of Didi’s temperament. Doing this with intermittent electricity and no running water is nothing short of a miracle.

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These sweet, smart, funny and curious youngsters start their day early, beginning with optional meditation and yoga. On this dawn, the small foyer lit faintly by a few candles, my voice joining the voices of these sixteen tiny warriors as they sing Baba Nam Kevalam, “Love is all there is”, which feels so true right now. The children then don their birthday suits, and run down to the river for a morning splash. I watch as little Bondita, barely two years old, shivers in the early morning light awaiting her warm sudsy bath. If only that were so. Instead she gets a cleansing ladle of water dumped over her little head and a quick scrub. For her, there is no fluffy warm towel waiting, she just stands there and sucks her thumb. She doesn’t cry or throw a fit; she stands with an experienced stoicism that belies her age. My heart breaks, and I run to my room, grab my beach towel, and scoop her up. She nestles her little head into my neck, and for a moment we heal.

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It was surprising to learn that these children were not up for adoption. “What do you mean it’s not an orphanage?” I asked Joni. She explained that these children live as family, very much brothers and sisters, with all the joys and sorrows that brings. Can you imagine being the two older boys with fourteen little sisters and a newborn baby brother? Felito and Chupateen are now eight and have been with Didi from their fragile beginnings. While they both rule as big brothers, it is six year old Sarita who makes sure that everyone has their fair share, enforcing integrity as needed. Each of the children has his or her own distinct personality, and as the day flowed from one activity to the next, it was a joy getting to know them. And I will not soon forget. This home is truly an oasis from the camp life of scarcity and violence from which most of these children have been rescued.   Secure in a feeling of safety, their daily routine includes nutritious warm meals, education, laughter and music, and time to just play or relax – a luxury for almost all Haitian children.

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Didi’s day transitions from caretaker to program manager, as the children head off to the school downstairs or busy themselves with their new art supplies. She and Joni are meeting with Shealda and Hilda, the two women who work with Amurtel Haiti as community organizers, They are discussing programming plans, budgets and financial needs for the coming year. It is a difficult conversation, as funding for these projects has dried up considerably since the earthquake. Yet the organizers are determined to keep them running; the overwhelming success, and the ardor of the women they serve prove their worth. Both women offer to take significant pay cuts on their already meager salaries, and Joni promises to find funding, assuring them Amurtel will not turn their backs on these programs. While so many other organizations have come and gone, Amurtel endures with over twenty years of support based not on throwing money at problems, but providing self-help solutions and partnering with those they serve.

My work day starts too, as I travelled here with two other friends, Emily and Alex, to bring yoga classes to the schoolchildren and offer some mother/daughter classes for the teens and women who participate in the programs.  I was in for a quick lesson on how not to get attached to your plan. We had a wonderful translator, Jagat, our constant companion for all of our adventures. But quite a lot gets lost when you are leading a giggling gaggle of 30 three year olds. Over the course of five days, it became easier and easier to go with the natural flow of the people and their country, and measure my success by laughter and exhaustion at day’s end. One night Joni was checking in with us and asked how I was doing.   My response was, “I’ve been peed on, rolled around on a filthy floor, mimed yoga postures to thirty confused faces, I’m exhausted and I feel so happy! What a great day!”

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The afternoon schedule was a class for teen girls enrolled in the Teen ESPAS PAM (translated as Girl’s Space) program. These girls meet once a week for presentations, activities, games, and interactive discussions about the issues they face, with the ultimate goal to keep them in school and delay pregnancy. Many of the village girls have their first child before they turn 15, and rape and sexual abuse are not uncommon. But of the 57 girls who have participated in this program, only two have dropped out with one confirmed pregnancy. She bravely came back and spoke to the group on the hardship of poverty and pregnancy – it is much easier and better to stay in school. A powerful message when it comes from a peer.

This class was again an exercise in letting go of plans and connecting with the girls’ rhythm. It was quite telling when we went around the room, asking them to introduce themselves and tell us how energetic they felt, with responses from, “I feel strong. I feel sad. I am hungry. My stomach hurts. I am happy. I want some food.” Many of the responses broke my heart.   But by the end of ninety minutes of yoga, activities, and a closing discussion on confidence, I found myself uplifted by their laughter and courage.

On the fourth day we travel to the southeast coast of Haiti to visit Amurtel’s school in Anse a Pitre and offer a yoga program to some members of the Self-Help women’s group and their teen daughters in Banaan. Getting there proved to be quite the ordeal. Both of Amurtel’s vehicles- the decrepit pickup truck and the twenty-five year old SUV had driven their final miles, so off to Avis rent a truck, for an exasperating three hour experience I will not put you through. Suffice it to say that raising funds for a new vehicle is a top priority.

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The noise and bustle of life in the children’s home was a stark contrast to the peace and serenity of life at the school in Anse a Pitre. We set up our mosquito tents on the rooftop in the cool evening air and are thankful for the amazing stars at the end of a long day’s drive.

The morning greets us with a spectacular sunrise and peaceful meditation. I miss the sound of children’s voices, but the village children soon begin to appear, as early as 7 am for some, on a Saturday morning no less. They have been told about the three travelling yoginis and patiently wait for us to begin our class. By now we have figured out what works with our translation difficulties and the variety of ages and we invite them to ‘go to the zoo’ – one they must create for themselves. We start off with a few standard yoga animal poses – and let the children take over. And take over they did! I’m sure it will remain one of the most fun and silliest yoga classes I experience in my life. I think my favorite was the frog dog.

Our visit to Haiti ended with a powerful visit to a women’s Self-Help group in Banaan. Funded for three years, Didi and Joni were recently told the funding had run out and they would have to close down the program. “That’s not going to happen” they tell me, “this program is too important and too successful for us to shut it down”. The women live in a village without running water, without electricity, without access to medical care, but with more spirit and determination than could be imagined. Each of the women had to save twelve cents a week to participate in the group, and had to show up each week. If one was short, the others stepped in and supported her, knowing they may need that same assistance. The group met to discuss their priorities, and over time set a goal to create a weekly market in their town, so they wouldn’t have to make the long trek across the border to the Dominica Republic to sell, or deal with the harsh racism they face there each week. The local market was a dream that took two years to realize, and was achieved through cooperation and collaboration. They have now set their sights on bringing running water to the village, and to staff the government medical clinic which sits empty next to their meeting hall.   Now all Joni and Didi need to do is find funding for the community organizers have agreed to, along with funds for a vehicle, and the teen girls program, and the tutors for the older children, and the… … The list is long and daunting, but Amurtel seems to take the challenge of keeping these programs in stride.

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I do want to end with a word of caution to anyone who is considering volunteering for one of Amurtel’s many worthwhile projects – be it for a five day visit like mine, or a year-long internship. You may leave and return home, but the experience will never leave you. Each morning now when I sing, I am joined by my memories of those sixteen precious voices.   And already I am planning my reunion.

Patty lives in Warren, VT where she teaches yoga.

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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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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.

Typhoon Relief Response in Philippines

AMURT & AMURTEL has relief teams in the area where deadly typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines over the weekend. More than 10,000 people are feared dead in a trail of utter devastation.

One of our team reached Bogo in North Cebu on Sunday and found total devastation and no other organizations active. They started a food distribution of both cooked and dry stock, and will continue throughout the week.

A second team reached the worst hit Tacloban and had to use chain saw to cut through trees blocking the roads in the city. They reported a tense security situation with people searching for food and water. From Cebu a third supply team is en route to Tacloban with food supplies under armed guards.

The task is great and the teams on the ground deserve our support. Donations can be made here:

Recurring Donation
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Notes

 

Report from the Field:

Dear friends,
I hope that you are healthy and secure in your own place.

Written Sunday: A few minutes ago I spoke with Savitri, who is just now traveling back from Bantayan Island with most of the AMWC staff. They went for initial survey and service.

They found destruction far beyond that of northern Cebu Province, which was really quite bad enough. From place to place the number of houses completely destroyed ranged from 75% to 90%. In some places house destruction was 100%

Bantayan Island has a population of about 150,000 people. 40,000 are in Madridejos where they went. On this first trip they brought with them food sufficient for only 2000 people. So in one of the places they stopped, the onslaught of people coming for food was so huge that they had to back out, knowing that when they could not feed them all, there could be a backlash. Instead they only gave food to a smaller but just as needy community. Other trips with greater amounts of food will surely follow.

Written Monday: In Tacloban, though the situation is so highly publicized, nevertheless the bureaucracy and other factors stymies the government networks, such that we continue to be one of the only sources of food there. Our team of volunteers continues their now systematized though limited relief work. Presently the team members number 15. Every day they are feeding only about 2500 people. As the need is obviously much more than that, so yesterday and today in Cebu we purchased 20 more stoves together with foodstuffs amounting to US$10,000 which will be shipped tonight, so that in Tacloban they can hopefully feed around 5000 people daily. We are also sending 400 liters of diesel so that our trucks there can be used to bring food to the most needy outlying areas, which until now have received nothing.

You may probably have heard news reports about the dangerous and violent people in Tacloban due to their desperation. Yes, they are desperate, but at least our experience is that they are not at all violent. Rather when we conduct feeding programs, 100% of the people are cooperative, as they fall into the four lines of children, teenagers, adults and senior citizens. And then just before each feeding program starts, we arrange for brief prayer to be led by the local barangay (town) leader. Immediately after that everyone literally cheers as the AMURT/EL food distribution begins. Imagine them as they cheer joyfully in unison, as if they have no care in the world. Such a noble people. It humbles all of our teams to serve them.

In Tacloban we continue to be the one and only source of cooked food and cooked rice. We give nothing but cooked food and drinking water. This is our policy because no matter how great a quantity we give the people, we know it will definitely make its way to hungry people’s stomachs, rather than enter into the growing black market of misappropriated relief goods to be sold at high prices.

Meanwhile, we have received a guarantee from the German children’s relief organization KNH , who presently have four representatives moving with us to survey and decide precisely where our joint long-term children’s projects will be established. One of those projects will be Children’s Friendly Spaces, i.e. informal kindergartens which enable the children to resume education in a safe and supportive environment, including a hot meal a day, and frees their parents for some time so they can work on getting their lives back together.

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The following was sent to us from one of the AMURT/AMURTEL teams working in Cebu Province

It is now midnight Tuesday. Yesterday morning we sent a team to survey the damage in northern Cebu Province, where the Eye directly passed.

Yesterday evening we sent a team by specially charted ship to survey Tacloban. And this morning we sent another team to the already surveyed northern Cebu Province — this time with food for the survivor. The Tacloban team had a tough time even reaching there. To get there we partnered with the Federation of Volunteers through Radio Communication (FVRC), of which the Chief Officer is our close friend. The FVRC is one of the first to go to any catastrophe area, as other communication systems are usually down. The ship arrived in Hilongos, due to the danger of sailing directly into Tacloban, where at least 10,000 were already dead. From Hilongos the 140 kilometer trip was by 4-wheel drive jeeps, and it took many hours due to trees across the road. Along the way, the team cleared the road of fallen trees by means of power saws to make the route passable for others. They reported that from the half way mark until finally arriving in Tacloban — 99% of the houses and structures were demolished. Try to imagine that.

In the city they temporarily established a base in the damaged but still standing city hall, and from that time we began intensive communication with our team leader, Avaniish. Approximately in his words:

“The faces of the people look completely blank — like zombies. The damage is 10 times beyond the earthquake (where he had also worked for many days). Debris is piled everywhere, and the smell of death is unavoidable. All the government offices are wiped out, no where to turn for protection. The military only to be found at the airport. Here they are in the worst need for food.”

And so we have made a plan to purchase food tomorrow (Wednesday) for Tacloban, and are arranging military escort and a ship — hopefully by tomorrow itself. We will most likely send it with cooking equipment and serve it cooked, as people simply have no stoves to prepare uncooked materials we might give them.

It will be far from sufficient, but at least it is a start. As to the team that went this morning to northern Cebu Province: Our van had less than a 3 hour drive before encountering a scene hardly better than Tacloban. Again most of the houses leveled to the ground. Children and adults standing in the road begging for food and water. The only difference from Tacloban was that not so many had died because there had been no storm surge, so no drowning. But the hurricane winds had done their work with equal power, demolishing almost everything in sight. Tens of thousands of houses were destroyed.

Our contacts were in Bogo City, precisely where the Eye had passed. No government workers, no non-governmental workers had been there to help them. We were the first on the site, and the people were overwhelmed with happiness to see our volunteers. We brought cooking equipment, and a small amount of food, enough to serve 600 people. Upon receiving the food, many cried and embraced those serving. In fact it was painful not to be able to help others.

And so tomorrow we will purchase food for the north, and likewise serve it to them cooked.

More days of great need will follow. Our global and sectorial AMURT/EL staff are doing what they can to drum up support. We shall likewise do all we can to serve as many as we can according to the funds sent.

Later when the threats of starvation and disease are less pressing, we shall think about house rebuilding and other long-term works.