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CU students steer fund for tsunami aid despite frustrations
Slow response in year after disaster fails to deter Mahdi, Kamis from helping

By JODY ROSELLE
Journal Staff


ITHACA — One year after the Southeast Asian tsunami decimated his village of Kampung Jawa in Indonesia, Saiful Mahdi continues to help the community pick up the pieces.

“Hopefully the small things we've been able to do for my family, my village and my community in Aceh make a difference,” said Mahdi, a Cornell University doctoral student. “I can only do that with the support of the community here and my friends here.”

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It's a process, he says, that is painstakingly slow, though Mahdi is among those who have tried hard to make it move more quickly, even from a world away.

With help from neighbor and friend Mazalan Kamis, of Keremat, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, Mahdi started the Aceh Relief Fund earlier this year.

“We got overwhelming support, more than what we initially needed,” said Kamis, a postdoctoral fellow in education at Cornell. “I wish it could be more because, you know, I receive people from the U.K. (United Kingdom), California, from other countries, wanting to help. Our major aim was to really link the Ithaca community and Aceh.”

Originally, the two men began the fund as a grassroots effort to collect money for direct delivery to the survivors of Mahdi's village.

Over the next few months, the two bank accounts grew into the Aceh Relief Fund. Mahdi took leave from his studies in city and regional planning to go home in January. In April, Kamis went to his friend's hometown. Both men chronicled parts of their experience in journals that can be found on the fund's Web site: http://www.acehrelief.org/.

“I told Mazalan, ‘What's the point of doing this because the catastrophe is so big, you don't feel like you're doing anything,” Mahdi said. “But with encouragement from friends, it moved forward.”

Despite local presentations, some local schools have opted to donate to relief efforts through other organizations.

“At some schools, they collected money like in a coin collection,” Kamis said. “Some schools, even after we made our presentation, they still decide they wanted to give to the Rotary - which is okay with me - but if it's a school within the area, that's kind of disheartening. Teachers and students help as individuals, but it would be nice if schools as organizations would come forward to help.”

Northeast Elementary School teachers Kelly Craft and Kari Krakow went to Aceh in February to train volunteers in early childhood education. Both Mahdi's and Kamis' children attend classes at the elementary school. The two teachers brought boxes filled with school supplies and a special goodwill ambassador.

“Kari brought along Baby Bear, an important member of her classroom,” wrote Kelly Craft in the online journal posted on the Web site. “He does seem to bring smiles to children and adults alike wherever we go.”

The response from the Indonesian government and international community remains painfully slow, drawing comparisons from Mahdi and Kamis to the earthquake in Pakistan Oct. 8 and Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf coast of the United States in August.

“Some NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), like Mercy Corps America, have to go directly to the head of a district,” Mahdi said. “The government planned to build 120,000 houses. So far, the government has only built 10,000. Not a single home has been built by the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank.”

Mahdi, who is on educational leave from his lecturer's position at Syiah Kuala University, recruited some of his own students to help with the planning. A community center has been erected with running water and electricity.

Microloans, educational facilities, a library and transportation are priorities in the relief efforts. The men estimate that $200,000 is needed to continue their work in Aceh.

“We got up to around $110,000. That has been very very helpful in supporting our work,” Kamis said.

At least 216,000 people died or disappeared in the tsunami, according to an Associated Press assessment of government and credible relief agency figures. The United Nations estimates the number at 223,000.

Contact: joroselle@ithacajournal.com

Originally published December 26, 2005

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BILL WARREN/Journal Staff

Mazalan Kamis, left, and Saiful Mahdi have started a relief organization to help victims of the 2004 tsunami in Aceh province, Indonesia.
On the Net

Aceh Relief Fund:

http://www.acehrelief.org/

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