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January 23, 2005 14:01 PM E-mail this news to a friend Printable version of this news

An Extraordinary Friendship

By Salmy Hashim

WASHINGTON, Jan 23 (Bernama) -- Malaysian Dr Mazalan Kamis, a post-doctoral fellow at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, has been friends with Saiful Mahdi, a graduate student from Aceh, for only a year.

They live in the same apartment building, their wives shop together and the children go to the same school and play together.

They were on their winter vacation in Chicago when the tsunami struck on Dec 26.

When the earthquake and killer waves crushed Banda Aceh, wiping out 34 villages and killing many of Saiful's family members, Mazalan, 41, immediately came to his rescue and raised more than US$50,000 (US$1=RM3.80) in seven days with the help of his Malaysian, Indonesian and American friends as well as the American community across the United States.

"We first heard the news from our hotel TV in Chicago. Saiful at first managed to talk to his uncle, and when he tried again later, there was only silence. We cut short our vacation and drove home.

"The number of casualties was at 4,000 when we started out but it quickly multiplied to 15,000 and then 25,000 and by the time we reached Ithaca after a 14-hour drive, 40,000 people had perished in Banda Aceh. We were just stunned, shocked and in deep sorrow," said Mazalan in a telephone interview with Bernama.

So far, more than 160,000 people have been killed in Aceh, and nearly 70,000 in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and parts of Africa. More than 60 people died in Malaysia.

Recovery and relief efforts are ongoing to help the survivors and thousands of children made orphans by the earthquake and the tsunami.

Mazalan started the initiative by first mobilising the Malaysian-Indonesian community (about 10 families) in Ithaca and Syracuse -- all agreed that something had to be done.

He e-mailed his friends, and his friends called their friends, word spread like wildfire across the US, and an unprecedented amount of money flowed into his account.

"Within three days I collected US$12,000. It was amazing that there are so many people out there who are ready to help. With the help of a friend, we created a website -- www.acehrelief.org -- and set up the Aceh Relief Fund. Saiful's journal and photographs on what's happening on the ground can be viewed at the website," he said.

Local TV stations and newspaper reporters came to interview the two men and their extraordinary efforts.

"The international community in Ithaca came out in droves. We received money from Vermont, Washington, Florida, California, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Texas and New York, from corporations, Muslim communities, church groups, and schoolchildren.

"The website and the fund have so far collected more than US$61, 000. It has been an overwhelming experience and we are hoping for more because the needs are so great," said Saiful.

"Saiful went home with enough cash to buy supplies, rent a van and a small truck to look for his family and to assist in recovery efforts. As he was flying from Singapore to Medan, he encountered a 69-year-old retired British nurse, a cancer survivor, who volunteered to help in medical assistance. The van became a mobile clinic with the help of a local doctor," said Mazalan, who hails from Pernu, Melaka. He is married with four children aged between four and 16 years.

Saiful, 36, who is married with three children, eventually found his sister, her husband and their three children who fled the waves by hiding on top of a three-storey building.

He is still searching for two of his younger siblings and their families but believes that his grandmother and his uncle and his family had perished in the disaster.

His mother, who is in Mecca to perform her pilgrimage, has not been informed of the tragedy.

With the money collected, the two men plan to set up an "emergency school" to continue giving the children in the area education.

They also plan to rebuild two tutoring centres, built by Saiful.

Out of 70 teachers in those centres, only 11 survived and very few of the 900 students educated in those centres are still around.

In phase 2, they plan to build a boarding school for orphans and Mazalan hopes to set up a foundation for the long term.

Plans are being made in Ithaca to adopt a village or a district for rehabilitation while two local teachers have volunteered to establish relationship between Ithaca and a community in Aceh.

Children from a High School in Syracuse are selling black ribbons on behalf of the Aceh Relief Fund, while a movie theatre in Ithaca plans to screen an Indonesian movie to support the effort.

"I have never seen anything like this. The support from everyone has been very, very amazing," said Saiful.


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