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Relief agencies help local people here assist tsunami victims in Asia

Through Inland Northwest churches and organizations, local people reach across the globe to survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean rim, serving through local people in local churches and organizations linked through an international network of relief and development agencies.

Four people representing agencies and faiths were recently interviewed for The Fig Tree Show on Comcast Channel 14 about the response following the Dec. 26 disaster and the years, even decades, of response to come.

Dhammasiri and Bean
Kekandure Dhammasiri and Doug Bean

Kekandure Dhammasiri, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who is serving the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Hillyard, and Doug Bean, a retired representative of Church World Service (CWS), who oversaw work in Southeast Asia for many years, reported on the work following the tsunami.

Scott Cooper of Catholic Charities, which channels funds to Catholic Relief Services, and Steve Downer, communications director at the Partners International headquarters in Spokane, reflected on their agencies’ responses on the show.

Each told of the power of initial response going as cash to local agencies, which have access to material supplies in the communities or regions affected—helping local economies rebuild.

Dhammasiri (Siri), born in 1954 in Madara on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, was worried, when he could not reaching his mother for weeks.  From teaching in several communities for 40 years, he knows many people who were washed away.

“Now people who enjoyed living by the sea and fishing fear the sea.  Previously, 16 percent were employed—25 percent of young people.  Now,  95 percent of fisheries are destroyed,” he said.

Siri will collect funds for scholarships, so 500 students can attend school. While some schools need to be rebuilt, others are being used as shelters for a while.

Doug was first in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.  After leaving the Navy, he worked eight years in Thailand, serving with Lutheran World Relief, the Mennonite Central Committee and Church World Service through a consortium of agencies with programs in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka.

From 1977 to 1983, he traveled in the Indian Ocean area, overseeing CWS relief and development programs carried out by local people of different faiths.

After working with CWS in Indianapolis, he went in 1997 to oversee refugee projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

Both agree that helping through people who know the language and culture is most effective.  Because people trust them, they readily come, express their feelings, report their needs and accept emotional, psychological and spiritual care.

Doug said CWS helps regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.
“The main thing is to find which groups have integrity and have the capacity to respond,” he said.

“As media attention drops and people become tired of the story, the faith community must continue to educate people to be concerned about the suffering of our brothers and sisters.  Life was bleak for many of them before the tsunami,” Doug said.

Growing up in Sri Lanka, Siri had limited knowledge of the world beyond Sri Lanka, India and Malaysia.

“The tsunami helps us understand we are part of one family—a global village,” he said.  “The challenge for educators is to build relationships.”
Siri wants to educate Sri Lankans to see the world “in a wider way” and know the world cares.  By 1977, literacy was 94 percent, but it has since declined.
“Education is a bridge to reach community to community, country to country,” Siri said.

While disasters draw much attention and money initially, Doug finds that “compassion fatigue” sets in and media attention shifts when the hard work that follows relief begins:  rebuilding houses, cleaning salt water from fields, replacing fishermen’s boats and re-establishing people’s lives.

“We have to do the emergency phase well, because people need food, shelter and clean water.  We also have to stay the course long-term to help people rebuild,” he said.  “That part requires faith.”

Siri said it takes three months to build a house, but years to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma from the loss of family members, friends and community.  He believes training he has had in clinical pastoral education in the United States will be of use when he returns.

“I want to help people find hope in awareness they have friends around the globe,” he added.

Generosity impresses agencies

Scott Downey
Steve Downer

Scott and Steve discussed the “overwhelming” responses they have had from generous people offering to help.

Partners International (PI) operates through indigenous agencies in nations.  PI identifies locally led ministries to provide holistic response in word and deed through local people and entities, Steve said.

It supplies funds for use by people who understand the culture, language and local resources.

Similarly, Catholic Relief Services is present through CRS agencies and partner agencies around the world, while it simultaneously keeps people in donor nations aware of needs.

“Our job year-round regardless of disasters is education, so our constituents in the Christian community are aware,” he said.  “They are keenly interested in knowing about ministries they help fund.

“When a disaster hits headlines, it’s an opportunity to expand our education, reaching people in the network and new people who want to learn what we are doing,” he said.

“People were quick to respond to the tsunami.  The disaster happened on Sunday, and Monday morning the phone rang with people asking what they could do.  People’s response helps redeem the sorrow about the tsunami.”

Scott Cooper
Scott Cooper

Scott described regular education through Catholic churches.  Through the liturgical seasons of the year, CRS resources help people learn about different areas of the world.  CRS and Catholic Charities constantly orient families with children to concerns and programs through activities families can do at home.

“We weave it seamlessly into our normal calendar, so people here understand that folks around the world are our brothers and sisters,” Scott said.

Beyond ongoing awareness, he is gratified by the people’s generous response to tsunami relief—people not part of the normal donor base.

“The solidarity piece of our faith says everyone is our neighbor—someone in line at a soup kitchen downtown or someone in line for relief supplies in the Indian Ocean rim.  There is no distinction between them through my faith lens,” said Scott.

In the midst of an overload of information, he provides simple ways to disseminate small, digestible bits of information and models for response. 

Beyond facts, he said, people need to know how to associate the information with their faith values and how to integrate it into their prayer lives, their understanding of scriptures and their everyday living of faith.

Scott said with so many traumatic images shown over and over, it’s easy to reach a point of “enough.”

“The faith community’s response, however, can be an opportunity to reground us and redeem our relationships with other parts of the world, as we reach out for generations,” he said. 

“Our challenge is to overcome our short attention span when media move to the next bright shiny object.  We need to commit ourselves as the faith community calls, recalls and reminds us to reach out to meet needs of people for years,” he said.

Both said crises continue for refugees in Sudan, as AIDS wipes out generations and as hundreds of thousands of people die in floods in Bangladesh.

Steve, who has worked with PI five years, said most nonprofits have a core of committed people. 

“It’s nice when the core grows, but it’s often as a result of a disaster.  We always work to expand the number of people supporting, praying for and lending a hand in our mission.  We need to hang in and not just be victims of whatever is on the front page,” he said.

The ongoing work makes organizations trusted vehicles for constituents.  Many know their gifts mean that funds are on hand for immediate response to the next disaster and that designated funds go where intended, Steve said.

Scott said several callers have asked “good questions” about overhead, use of funds and options.  He appreciates careful giving, because it makes organizations accountable to donors.

While giving rises in days, weeks and months after a disaster, Steve said when it drops it does not fall below where it was, because the donor base broadens.

Faith-based organizations also help address non-material needs.
In any social service, Scott said that presence and attention are as valuable as material assistance.

“Obviously people need clothes, shelter and food,” Steve said, “but people I have met in refugee camps and war situations are asking the life questions:  What is the meaning of my loss?  Why did this happen?  How can I handle this?  Is there a God?  What does God have to do with this?

“We are spiritual as well as material beings, so we have questions,” he said.
He added that donors ask such faith questions as:  “Are we being good stewards?  What are we called to do and be in the world in which we live where there is suffering, difficulty and disaster?”

“With the loss of life among foreign tourists, the wide region affected and that area’s dependence on tourism, we realize we are in a global community,” Steve noted.

For information, call 888-297-2767 (CWS), 484-4331 (Siri), 358-4273 (CRS) or 343-4044 (PI).  For a list of agencies responding, visit www.interaction.org/sasia/.

 

Copyright © February 2005- The Fig Tree