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Tuesday December 27, 2005
Cornell student helps create Aceh Relief Fund
Indonesian native aids home province

Gannett News Service

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."

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 on the fund's Web site:

"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."

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 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.

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