Friday, November 14, 2008

Exert from China article...

Piles of rubble line damaged roads. The team van comes to a sudden halt on a bridge and people gasp, as in front of the vehicle they see a gaping hole caused by the recent May earthquake. The van skirts around and continues on, destroyed infrastructure is commonplace in this part of China

The Sichuan province, where there have been 80,000 deaths, is very different to the Olympic Beijing viewed by the world. Tent cities blot the landscape, a camouflage of green and blue, often situated next to debris that used to be somebody’s home. One team member said, “I’ve spent so much of my time in third world countries. I had to keep reminding myself that this is not where these people normally live.” Five million Chinese are now homeless.

We deployed a team to China in July for two weeks. During that time, the team saw almost 500 patients, though it was not the average medical outreach. Karen, an RN working with us, said, “One thing I noticed was that very few children were attending the clinics.” When a teenage boy visited, he shared that when the earthquake hit, three hundred of his classmates died. This became a familiar story, with many thousands of children killed. It is a situation that has in fact led to China’s infamous one-child policy being “clarified” in the Chengdu region, the capital of Sichuan province. Chinese officials said that the country's one-child policy exempts families with a child killed, severely injured or disabled in the earthquake. Those families can obtain a certificate to have another child.

People in the area where the team served live mainly in farming communities. Many had never seen a doctor before. One team member said, “The people didn’t push as they have in other countries. I don’t think they knew what was available. Out there, if you get sick, you either survive or die.”

Clinics were facilitated in various locations, sometimes in a house or a corn field. One particular day, the team was situated in a tent by the side of the road when, out of nowhere, a small troupe of marching soldiers appeared. They didn’t seem to notice the team of foreigners standing inside the open tent.

Questions and theories abound as to whether China has opened its doors and relaxed control over its citizens. The Chinese government seemed much more open to foreign aid than their Asian neighbor, Burma, when it came to handling relief efforts. But when asked about relief in the region where the earthquake occurred, Karen said, “Except for the tents, it was hauntingly empty.” The team didn’t see any other aid workers in the regions they visited outside Chengdu. This was an unexpected finding, as this period is normally considered the reconstruction stage.

As the team members looked into the eyes of the Chinese people in the Sichuan province, they discovered a mixture of hope and despair. With only two translators, they could often only give an understanding look or a hug. However, there was a refreshing openness and gratitude in these people. People would invite them in and prepare a meal for them, even though they themselves had little to survive on. Karen said, “In spite of their grief, kids would sing songs for us and thank us for coming to help. It was like they were the ambassadors from their country.”

Care did not forget...

Walking along deserted streets I observe piles of debris lining the sidewalks. Though the water has long subsided, very few homes remain in this once bustling part of New Orleans called the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s been nearly three years since Hurricane Katrina hit, but as a newly arrived Australian, this is my first visit. I scan the brown water level stains still apparent on homes and wonder how anyone escaped.

I’m beginning to understand why this was termed the most catastrophic engineering disaster ever on American soil. One bathroom still has the CD player plugged into a wall, the bath beside it filled with rubble. When the levy walls broke, the flood engulfed everything in its path. People didn’t have time to think. They just dropped everything and ran.

Many accusations were cast after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 29, 2005. As quickly as Katrina dismantled 80% of the city, pointing fingers began searching for someone to blame. She had traditionally been called the “City that Care Forgot,” and after the hurricane, New Orleanians felt more alone than ever before.

The extensive flooding stranded many residents who had chosen to remain with their homes. Survivors yelled from rooftops desperate for someone to save them. Some were trapped inside attics, unable to escape, while others hacked their way onto roofs with axes.

The Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, described the loss of life as "significant" amidst reports of bloated corpses floating on the water throughout the city. The National Guard even began setting up temporary morgues to handle the nearly 2000 bodies. Clean water was scarce and electricity unreliable, a situation that would continue for weeks.

Eight out of ten houses were flooded and many wondered if the city and her people would recover. But in late 2005, while the community at large festered over the amount of government action, concerned citizens began to stand. In their thousands they traveled to New Orleans and offered their services to help restore the community.

Steve and Bronwen Niles have been facilitating teams throughout the city. Bronwyn says, “One church was feeding five thousand people daily and needed seventy volunteers every day. We were able to work together.” Initially, many groups facilitated the distribution of food in large quantities. This continued for months after Katrina, past Christmas of 2005 and into 2006.

It was then that a much larger task became evident. The flood accompanying the hurricane had left many homes unsafe to live in. Some were beyond repair, but others could be rebuilt, enabling families to begin life again. “That’s when we realized this (rebuilding of houses) changes people’s lives, it gives them hope. It’s the first step in restoration,” says Bronwen.

As teams continued to flow into the city, restoring houses became the obvious priority. The citizens of New Orleans began to hope again as volunteers rebuilt their homes. Bronwen says, “People would break down weeping, as we told them we could do their home. They saw that they weren’t alone in their suffering, they weren’t abandoned. So many people were coming to help.”

People of different races have come together, who otherwise wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for the Hurricane. Teams came from all over the country. Bronwen says, “Even in the recent months, you could go out to a neighborhood where the houses haven’t been rebuilt much and see seven or more different vans from church groups working there.”

Many hundreds of thousands have come to help in the three years since the hurricane. They have restored hope to many. Teams are still coming and continue to help rebuild lives. When asked what she would say to the people who have come to help, Bronwen’s voice cracks as she says, “I would thank them. We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for those people. They were total strangers, but they came to help us. I don’t know if there’s ever been anything like this in history, where people of a nation, came to help another part of that nation to the degree that has happened here.”

One man in another area of New Orleans discovered that his house had been rebuilt. He called Bronwen and asked, “Did your group do my house?” She answered, “No I don’t think so, but I’ll check.” Going by the house Bronwen and Steve saw that the house had indeed been completed. They asked a neighbor if he knew who had finished the work and the neighbor said, “Oh, it was the Christians, of course, some Christians from out of state.”

However, three years on and many parts of the Lower Ninth Ward remain desolate and mostly uninhabited. Where once there were hundreds of houses, now only a smattering remains.
We pull up outside one of the familiar FEMA trailers where residents lived after the disaster. The man who lives in this trailer is Bob Green. He lost his wife and daughter in Katrina. A crude tombstone shaped sign sits outside the van with a scrawled handwritten message. “We want our country to love us, as much as we love our country.”

Some local businesses have reopened and residents have returned, but even now ruined possessions remain inside many damaged homes. On the floor amongst the rubble I see abandoned toys and CD cases. In another, furniture is still upturned where it was thrown in the flood.

Much still needs to be restored in this city, but people have begun to stand and take responsibility for their fellow man. Volunteers working alongside residents have nurtured a new environment of trust and working together. The motto of New Orleans used to be, the city that care forgot. But it is a fact that people have cared and they continue to come.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Not forgotten...

In Southern Sudan this past March, we spent four weeks running medical clinics and helping with the construction of an orphanage. It was my first trip to Africa and it's true to say this continent gets under your skin... in a good way. Here is something I wrote while there...

Darfur is a topic of conversation for reasons other than the internally displaced persons, or IDP's, we have seen in our medical clinics. There are nations vying for oil rights, who turn a blind eye to the corruption and treatment of the nation’s people by their own government. The Sudanese I spoke to have little hope or trust in the government. Their expectation is that aid monies sent to Southern Sudan will not reach them. The true extent of this comment remains to be seen, however one thing is for sure. While both are important, visiting these people in person brings more results than simply sending funds.

Whilst it is not Darfur, the region of Terekeka is similar for many reasons. Their primary needs are for increased medical assistance and education. The name Terekeka means, "The people who have been forgotten." The people of Terekeka chose that name for themselves. At the beginning of our time in this area, a local chief told us this fact. But he also said, "Now we feel we have been remembered."

The same chief also said, "It is good that you are here. Our people live like animals, at least now you can help them medically." The people live a primitive existence in a harsh and hot land. Where the most common illness in Western children might be bronchitis, the most common illness in the children of Terekeka is malaria.

It is difficult to reach by road. The distance from nearby Juba is only 50 miles, but takes four hours to drive. As it is with a large number of people in Southern Sudan, the community of Terekeka are primarily IDP's. The war of twenty-one years has left a trail of destruction evident to all. Even the wildlife deserted as the war took its toll on the landscape.

Of the people I spoke to, their main cry is for education and medical assistance. Sardia Dahut, a social welfare worker says, "As an orphan, I was forced to work from a very early age and not allowed to finish my education." Her spirit pushed her to try and bring change, but in a land where the women are widows and the men have either died or left, that is a difficult task.

The group I was with in Southern Sudan have over the past seven years, built an orphanage, clinic, school and church in the town of Yei. They now plan to do the same in Terekeka. Dennis Klepp, co-founder of Harvesters says, "Change doesn't seem possible, but every time someone comes to help they plant a seed of hope, because they have remembered the people. As more people come, more hope rises and eventually change will begin to occur." People who have been rejected and forgotten grow stronger when others reach out and remember them. Terekeka is a community that needs to be remembered. Southern Sudan is a country that needs to be remembered.