Graduate student helps relief effort
after losing family members
The effects of the recent South Asia
tsunami were felt by the Cornell community, even while
students were on their winter break.
Saiful Mahdi grad, whose family lived in Aceh, Indonesia,
returned home in early January to search for family members.
Mahdi, according to Mazalan Kamis grad, a close friend and
neighbor, lost 15 immediate and extended family members in the
disaster. Kamis estimated a budget of $6,000 for his return
trip and immediately e-mailed his friends to request
donations. According to Kamis, as the money flooded in, with
over $50,000 in the first week, he created the Aceh Relief
Fund, and Mahdi became the fund's representative in Aceh by
helping to lead relief efforts there.
"Saiful, as a grad student in Cornell, is very experienced
in providing leadership in times like these. Everyone is
rushing to help, but few people can organize effectively. Our
group is very effective -- we give direct help to the people
who are suffering. Other agencies provide aid in camps, but
not to the people who went to their relatives that lived in
villages unaffected by the tsunami. Saiful realized this gap
and the focus became to help those people," Kamis said.
According to Brendan O'Brien, director of the International
Students and Scholars Office, Mahdi is the only known
Cornellian affected by the disaster.
For his trip home, the ISSO helped Mahdi with registration
issues and also provided financial support.
"All of us were extremely saddened by the loss of life.
We're most concerned with Saiful and his family. We hope that
we don't hear of any other students but we'll do what what we
can to help students who've suffered a loss," O'Brien added.
"Saiful is working with other students who returned to help
-- they are more effective than other relief agencies because
they know the place; they know where to get and give help. We
also have no overhead cost; we're all volunteers, all the
money goes straight to Aceh," Kamis said.
The Aceh Relief Fund has received nearly $61,000. Kamis
mentioned that one individual donated $10,000. He attributed
the fund's ongoing success to the fast mobilization of friends
and word-of-mouth. An article describing Mahdi's losses in the
tsunami and his trip to Indonesia appeared in the Ithaca
Journal on January 3, which Kamis said has generated a lot of
interest and support for the fund.
"You can read his journal, his account of how he carries on
his day-to-day work in Aceh. Saiful actually established two
schools in Aceh before he came to Cornell that were both very
successful, but one school was entirely destroyed by the
tsunami and the other was damaged," Kamis said. "We will start
rebuilding the other school and make it into an emergency
school, a place for the kids to play, to have some normalcy in
their life, to have people looking after them. And since these
are not government schools, we have the freedom to rebuild
without being trapped in government bureaucracy."
The fund has set up a mobile clinic in the affected area of
Aceh, which will include the aid of a physician and nurse,
under Mahdi's leadership. In the long term, the group will
"adopt a village or sub-district" and focus their energies on
providing aid there. Kamis plans on focusing primarily on
health and education, and especially on the welfare of
He added, "We do wish for more support from Cornell. You
can find more information about the fund at
Many other student-run organizations on campus are
gradually mobilizing volunteers and relief efforts as the
spring semester gets underway.
Kirsten Rose, vice president of the Red Cross Club, said in
a statement, "This fundraising is in conjunction with Habitat
for Humanity and Cornell EMS. ... The Red Cross will be on Ho
Plaza the first Monday and Tuesday of classes to collect
Help A Life, according to its president, Fatima Iqbal, is
orchestrating Project Make and Give, a project where students
make baby blankets that are donated to infants in need. The
organization plans on sending the blankets to a city in India
affected by the tsunami.
Individual students are also creative in their efforts.
Evan Variano grad, plans on visiting area high schools with
a "tsunami-in-a-tube," a device that he will use to
demonstrate the physics of tsunamis to students.