Monday, September 24, 2012

A Little Girl Named Liza (A Note from Aceh)

Many times in life, I ask myself about what I would really like to do and what kind of person I would like to become. I believe same questions come across your mind too sometimes. I believe all of us want to have a meaningful life, as much as becoming a meaningful person. We have abundant options and opportunities in life, and it is up to us to decide how we would spend our times, where we would go, what we would do for others, what we would do to ourselves, and those are really, the true privileges of being a free human being.

In my search for a meaningful and fulfilling life, I decided to leave for Aceh, a province severely hit by the massive Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.  I often felt overwhelmed when I was there, meeting so many people, observing so many things, and doing so many tasks (oh yeah, there are always excuses for everything :-) ), yet I know that stories from Aceh worth to tell, as a reminder to myself, that doing things that I love feels so good, and to others to know how beautiful it is to live the call in our hearts.

Aceh and the project we did there were very special to my heart that I decided to come back after living two years in the U.S. to study. I bet you agree: only special places, where we have special reasons, could get us to do that. Aceh was one of those places to me.

These days I really miss the moments when I traversed to schools in rural areas of Aceh. I met dedicated teachers, beautiful children who looked timid at first but so eager to learn. I love the feelings when I was surrounded by those little, alive, curious eyes, and as I smiled back, and talked to them, they would stick to me, following me wherever I go. I love to hear the cute voices of the children, and those little figures running around with happy faces. I love the moments, when in between discussions and disaster preparedness drills that we conducted, these kids would curiously come to me and shyly observed how I used my DSLR camera and video camera to record their activities. I miss the moments when I just sat on the school yard, showing them the buttons on the camera and how the devices recorded their and their friends’ faces. I knew I could always expect the cheering as I replayed the images before their eyes.

Liza and I :)

I can’t ever forget that day when I arrived in that small elementary school in Meulaboh, a town at the Western Coast of Aceh. It was the closest town to the epicenter of December 26, 2004 earthquake and tsunami, and this little girl named Liza told me so fluently how she lost her mother that day, while she was having a bowl of instant noodle soup. I got teary eyes and choked while she calmly talked about death and a life-changing event (most people I know in Aceh rarely called that tsunami ‘tragedy’) – while she was enjoying her lunch.

Liza told me a story that she learned from her father. “I was a baby,” she said. “My mom left for grocery shopping when I was still sleeping. She told my daddy to take care of me.”

She sipped her soup, and continued, “Then there was that huge earthquake. My dad took me from the crib, and he went out of our home. Not long after people screamed, telling us to run as the sea was rising. My father ran away, he carried me.”

I felt the chill, seeing how calm and fluent a child told such story. “My mom arrived at our home not so long after my father and I escaped. She was screaming, ‘my baby, my baby!’, and our neighbor told her that my father had saved me so she should just run away as fast as she can as the wave was approaching. She didn’t listen. She rushed into our empty house to search for me... and days later my dad found her under the rubble of our home. A big wooden log fell upon her. She died that way.”

I have heard many stories about how most mothers died during the tsunami as they attempted to save their children before they thought about saving themselves. But I have never heard that story from an eight year-old child before. Least, I would expect, she talked about it over a bowl of noodle soup!

“My dad and I were safe because he managed to climb a coconut tree. So there we stayed until the wave drifted back and we went to my dad’s village. Now I already have a new mom. My dad married her some years ago. She’s very kind to me.”
"I think I am lucky to have such wonderful new mom. Not all of my friends are lucky. Their new moms sometimes beat them up, while I can shop with my mom, getting new dresses."

Her friends were around, it was lunch time, and none seemed to be bothered by that story but me. Moments like that reminded me about the meaning and importance of our works in Aceh. These children might not remember exactly how the disaster happened, but in our focused group discussions they could recall the hazards around them. Santri, our really cool facilitator asked, “Have you ever seen or felt any danger around your school?”

They quickly answered, rushed from one to another answer, “earthquake!”, “very strong wind!”, and ‘’flood!” To add to that, they understand that being the inhabitants of a waterfront town, they are always prone to tsunami.

School visits and talks with children, teachers, and local communities were always like the best energy booster to us, these so-called humanitarian/development workers who sometimes get so bored by administrative routines. Reading our work plans, budgets, and dealing with the organizational procedures often felt dull. Seeing the activities, meeting the beneficiaries were the moments when we witnessed our ideas becoming reality. It was the moments when we reinforced our own beliefs that YES, we need to do this, and we must do this for the people. After all, humanitarian workers are human who can lose focus at times. It was the moment when the bore from the paperwork paid off.

I spent two days with them, observing the processes of the development of a child-friendly disaster risk reduction standard operational procedures (DRR-SOP). The idea for this SOP was initially proposed by Fuadi, our colleague, who before working with our organization had spent four years with a child-focused international NGO. I found it to be a brilliant idea.

It started with hazard vulnerability and capacity assessment (HVCA) made easy to children. Involving children to identify the dangers around them, the strength that they had, safe places around them, was proven to be great approach. They did their assessment seriously: visiting classes, bowing watchfully to check the spaces under desks and bookshelves, observing every corners of the schools, looking up to the sky for reasons I’ve never known, taking notes carefully, and tip toeing around some places as if they were detective on a mission. I was giggling as I observer how they worked, running around the school following them with my cameras.

After the observation mission they reported their findings. They had to answer the questions asking what kind of danger could happen to them in school. Beside things that they have ever experienced before – the earthquake, whirling wind, and flood, they mentioned that fire and bicycle theft could be other dangers to them.

Even though some answers could be hilarious, such as when they explained that to some of them the space under the teacher’s desk was categorized as unsafe place because “it looks dark!” (They looked at us, the adults with “really, we should tell you why it looks scary? Isn’t it obvious?”-look), we entrusted children as human beings with knowledge to provide their assessments. I appreciated Liza and friends' efforts to figure out those spots and assessed the challenges. Those little feet made their best efforts to explore every corner of the school. :)

Seeing the world from the children eyes is refreshing. Seeing them sharing their thoughts so freely got me a little bit envious. We, adults have been too long living in ‘what’s supposed to be’ instead of ‘what it is’. We mask feelings and our truest senses to comply those so-called socially-acceptable premises, and often we are pushed to discomfort zone by no other than our own-selves.

Finally we had a very good list of hazards, vulnerability, and capacity that they possess. We also explored their preferred information sources, making us realize that despite TV or internet, to them, parents, teachers, and other older people including Pak RT (the neighborhood chief) are still their primary resources.

Innocence showed in many ways during our participatory assessment. Most of the children agreed that the bicycle parking lot was not a safe place for them. Not because of the roof that might collapse in times of strong wind or earthquake, but because, "it is located at the hidden part of our school, and out of teachers' sights". That makes sense, though. Children needs to feel protected. To them, the most reliable protection is not the building construction, but the presence of older, reliable persons whom they know.

I left Liza's school late in the afternoon on the second day. She, and her friends hugged me tight, asked me to promise that I would be back to their school to see them again. I did not make it, but traveled to some more schools for our DRR Education project. Later I met some of the students from Liza's school some months later, in a DRR competition.

We have finished the DRR SOP for children in early 2012. My only hope is the teachers in Aceh continuously use it to educate those awesome children. I miss you, kids... 

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