Disaster Relief Journal: Day 5

Disaster relief workers
Disaster relief workers

I’m battling a round of the flu.  After so much traveling, I finally got out to the field today and was dismayed to feel myself coming down with an aching fever and a very sore throat, taking away much of the enjoyment of the day.

We work in 3 disaster relief camps for Chadians who’ve been chased from their homes.  They official term for them is Internally Displaced People or (IDPs).  We are also starting working in a camp for Sudanese refugees.  So we spent most of the day looking at the various physical structures we’ve built, discussing successes and failures, what more needs to be done, what’s worth investing more in and what’s not…

Pretty much everyone has heard of the Sahara Desert, but few have heard of the Sahel.  This is the band along the southern edge of the Sahara that transitions from desert to the greener “sub-Saharan Africa” that most people picture when they hear the name “Africa”.

The continent is amazingly varied, both by climate and by traditions.  Each country is very different from its neighbors.  The Sahel is where the desert “Arabic” cultures meet up with the more “African” cultures.  It is also where the Muslim and Christian worlds meet.  Goz Beida is right on the line between these two worlds and is where I’m doing my disaster relief work.

Not far north of here, it is mainly Arab animal herders (pastoralists).  Not far south, it is majority Christian farmers.  Here on the line, people depend usually on a combination of farming and animals though their animals were stolen as they fled their villages and they now have very little access to their farm land, risking rape and murder just to farm their fields.

A water catchment system outside of an IDP camp
A water catchment system outside of an IDP camp

We get rain here pretty heavily for about 3 months of the year, and then nothing the other 9 months.  It is a very fragile environment and can only support a very scattered population, so when wars create concentrations like these IDP camps, it really stresses out the local environment.  Much of our work is designed to keep people alive while protecting the environment.  We’re building large rainwater catchment systems to add to the water table and to water the animals that haven’t been looted, helping to reforest (to counteract the huge amount of trees being cut for firewood) and similar stuff.  Disaster relief is hard on a lot of things.

Because we’re so far out in the middle of no-where, farming and herding animals is about the only way for most people to earn money or get food, but this is almost impossible when there are so many people living in one such remote place.  So we’re also working to build up the local economy and help people get work while cutting back on their expenses.  One of the things we’re doing is to help install mills to reduce the cost of grinding their grain into edible flour.  We’re doing other stuff too, but these were the things we were visiting yesterday – the mills, rainwater catchment systems and reforestation projects.

I helped to get this project started last year and hired most of the initial staff, so I already know most of them.  It was great to get to know them again as they proudly showed me all they’ve accomplished, which really is impressive, even to a skeptical, jaded soul like myself.

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High School Humanitarians

World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Orphans: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.

Students from Kings High School in Seattle worked with World Concern to produce art for World AIDS Day 2008. The mixed media art projects were displayed in a public library in Seattle. I was impressed with the display. I think my favorite was a simple, bold painting that helps illustrate the pain of orphans.

Help: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Help: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.Tear: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Heart: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Heart: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Face: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Face: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Erase: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
Erase: World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
World AIDS Day art display for humanitarian organization World Concern.
World AIDS Day art display in a Seattle library for humanitarian organization World Concern.

Disaster Relief: Day 4

UN tank used to protect disaster relief workers
UN tank used to protect disaster relief workers

Well, it was one of those roller-coaster days.  Check-in was at 6:30, so Adoum reliably picked me up at 6:00 and we rattled off to the airport.  My bag was 17kg and sometimes they’ll make a fuss over even 2kg, so I was relieved when they let it go, though later I found they’d lost a bundle that accompanied the checked bag.  There is only one gate at the airport, though it is dutifully numbered “gate 1” and about 5 flights of passengers were all crowded into the one cramped waiting room.  Just as my flight was due to head out, a bunch of soldiers armed with AK-47s, rockets and other small arms formed a perimeter around the parking ramp in front of us.  It was rather disconcerting that they were facing our door rather than the world at large.  Then President Deby’s plane came in to pick him up, people rolled out a red carpet, others swept it, soldiers in formal dress lined the carpet and everyone waited – for two hours, while the entire airport was closed down.

I didn’t mind waiting; I’m used to that.  But it was making me miss my connection to Goz Beida and I knew Nick would pay me back for my bragging about not having to spend the night in Abeche.  We landed in Abeche a couple of hours late.  I registered with the local government official and called our local man to come pick me up.  Stepping out onto the front step of the two-room airport building to wait for him, I heard someone say “all passengers for Goz Beida.”  I grabbed my bag, pushed it at a guy with tags and a stapler, and said, “Goz Beida?  I’m going to Goz Beida.”  So he grabbed my bag, tagged it, tagged my knapsack carry-on, and pointed out the tiny airplane parked across the crumbling brick-paved parking ramp.  I caught up with the 3 other passengers and told the pilot I was going to Goz Beida.  He scribbled my name onto the manifest and away I went, wondering when they would pitch me off the plane.  But they didn’t.  Usually there is a painfully long and bureaucratic check-in procedure in Abeche, so I was astonished that I was going to be let onto this flight.  Quickly I sent a text message to our man in Abeche and to the guys in Goz Beida that I was on my way.  Life occasionally throws a bone your way and I reveled in it.

All the team’s senior staff and Nick met me at the dusty clay airstrip.  It was a nice welcoming.  Off to one side was the MINURCAT (UN peacekeepers) compound with helicopter gunships stationed in a barricaded compound.  Last February rebels overran the local government military in Goz Beidafor the second time and occupied the town for the better part of the day before they were chased off.  Our team took shelter in their compound for a night or two.  To prevent another battle, UN peacekeepers have been based here to support the Chadian military.  If NGOs like World Concern have to leave because of security, then about 60,000 people will not get such basics as food, water and medical care, so the role of the peacekeepers is very important.

I was dropped at the house to collect my wits and eat the first food I’d had today.  Jetlag had me up at about 4am this morning, so I wasn’t much good.  Later, we went over to Oxfam’s compound to use their internet connection.  Even though I’m in Chad, I’m still supporting responses in other countries, so I had to answer several emails each from Kenya, Myanmar and Sri Lanka to keep things from stalling, as well as various administrative duties from HQ.  It’s hard to be in a place like Chad and think about budget planning for 2010.

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Disaster Relief: Day 2 & 3

disaster relief aid chad
A 'tent city' where people in need of disaster relief live

This post is direct from the journal of Merry Fitzpatrick. She is providing disaster relief to the people in Chad, Africa.

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Today is Thanksgiving and I’m in Chad.  It means nothing to the people around me.  I knew I’d be out of the States today, so I celebrated with a nephew and some neighbors last Saturday just before leaving.  That helps.

I arrived on Tuesday afternoon (along with my baggage, hallelujah) and was picked up at the airport by Jonas, our local logistician.  All our work is on the other side of the country so the rest of the team is there.  Unfortunately, the capital has the one international airport so we have to pass through here when we arrive and depart.  So we keep a simple house and a room for Jonas’ office here.

Because of security, we have to take UN flights to get to the field.  Last week we were sending out a 4×4 vehicle we’d purchased and it was attacked along the way by bandits.  No one was hurt and nothing was stolen, but we did have to replace a couple of wheels.

Disaster relief supplies in chad
Disaster relief supplies

Jonas met me with Adoum, a taxi guy we use on occasion.  Adoum borrows a car off the owner and they split the fare.  The car is an ancient little sedan that rattles and shakes along on 2 to 3 cylinders at a time.  Sometimes the windows will open or close, sometimes not.  At the house I met up with Nick, our Deputy Relief Director who is also visiting Goz Beida.  All houses here are surrounded by high walls, even if your house is made of mud.  Our compound is rather small and the kitchen, such as it is, is tucked away in a little cement block room in the back corner of the compound.  Just inside the gate is a large bougainvillea vine that sprawls along the wall, showering down bright pink-purple flowers during the night (which the guard sweeps with maddening enthusiasm before 6am).  These plants are great in that they grow in both rainy and dry areas and their thorny confusion of branches provides much better security than barbed wire – while also being quite beautiful.

The walls and floors are cement and the walls are painted an odd pink.  The 3 bedrooms contain beds and nothing else.  Some built-in closets in one room provide storage for our field team’s city clothes and such.  The living room contains a small fridge (the only one in the house), a sofa/armchair set and a coffee table, and nothing else.  The house is mainly just for people to transit through, so it doesn’t need much more.  The compound across the narrow sandy street is occupied by a variety of young singles, so loud contemporary African music blares through most of the day.  Noise isn’t the villain here that it is in the States so you confuse people if you are upset by loud music or whatever.

Down the street, across an open sandy area littered with trash there are a few shops and restaurants.  The restaurants are tin shacks with plastic tables and chairs set around on a dirt floor.  In a corner 3 sinks with running water are lined up – a bit of a luxury in a place like this.  Usually there is just a metal tank with a spigot.  People eat mainly with their hands, so washing is important.  There are rarely ever any women in the restaurants as this is a Muslim section of town.  Because I’m obviously a foreigner, they don’t mind when I go there to eat.  Last night Nick and I went down there for a plate of fries and a large glass of fresh guava and banana juice for supper.  It didn’t make me sick, so I’ll probably go there for supper tonight too.

Disaster relief helps hungry children in Chad
Disaster relief helps hungry children in Chad, Africa

Nick’s flight to Goz Beida left early this morning and Jonas is chasing down a number of different signatures, so I’m largely on my own today.  Today is Thursday; Monday morning between flights was the last time I was able to download emails, so Jonas took me to a cyber café on the back of his motorcycle and dropped me off.  It is the best connection in town, but is still slow and erratic.  It took me about half an hour to receive my emails, then another hour of constant trying and retrying to get the emails in my outbox to send.  Everything here takes more time and effort.

Normally, we have to overnight on our way to Goz Beida in a pit of a town called Abeche, but miracle of miracles, I will be on a rare flight tomorrow that will connect directly with a flight to Goz Beida, arriving almost the same time as Nick, even though he left 24 hours before me – which I’ve kindly reminded him of about a hundred times.  The flights are coordinated by the UN and we’re allowed only 15kg (about 30 pounds) of luggage, including our carry-on bags because the planes are so small.  Considering an ordinary laptop weighs 4 to 5 pounds (2-3kg), this doesn’t leave much for personal gear.  There are also always supplies and spare parts to take to the field as well.  So we usually end up with about half the weight for our personal items.  That’s about enough for a few toiletries, shower shoes, a flashlight, about 4 changes of clothes, a towel, a book or two, and some small odds and ends.  Really though, that’s about all you need as long as you can get your clothes washed once or twice a week.

I pray all goes well tomorrow and I don’t get stuck in Abeche.

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Disaster Relief In Chad: Day 1

Disaster relief in Chad
A Helicopter is about to deliver disaster relief supplies to people in Chad

Still traveling.  It’s already been a long trip and it’s still only half done.  Leaving Seattle on Sunday evening, I’ll arrive in Ndjamena on Tuesday.

On arrival, we’ll immediately apply for my travel permit to go to Goz Beida, the town in the east where we work.  Because it is a conflict zone, the government must control which foreigners go into the area.  As we have permission to work there and an on-going program, it is little more than a formality, but it must be done and it takes time.

Usually about a day – if we catch the right people at their desks.  Then I’ll get a seat on a UN flight to Abeche, the main town in the east where I’ll have to spend the night, arriving in Goz Beida on Thursday or more likely Friday.  So that means travelling from Sunday to Friday to get to our base.  The airline I’m on is notorious for losing bags – about half the time I have to wait days or weeks for my bags to show up.   Once, after 4 months, they showed up on another continent, 6,000 miles away.  Another time they never did arrive.  Now, I carry the essentials with me plus any valuable equipment I am taking to the field.

disaster relief chad
A worker unloading disaster relief supplies

I’ve been doing disaster relief work for about 13 years now.  It is unlike anything else in the world.  Mind-numbing days of tedium and discomfort mixed with unbelievable moments exhilaration when things work out that more than make it all worthwhile – when you can provide disaster relief to someone.  After so many years, the learning curve is still very steep.  It’s one of the things that makes disaster relief and aid work so exhausting while at the same time so compelling.  Until the last few years, I was always based in the field, working for months and even years in a single place, on a single crisis.  Now, I work more as an advisor and hop around to different programs.  One of the things I miss most in my new role is the close relationships with my teams.

Although I helped start this program in Chad (a country in Africa) a year and a half ago, I expect to learn a lot on this trip, as I do on every trip.  I expect to learn not just about Chad, or this particular crisis, or about specific techniques, but also about people in general – the people we are there to serve, our team on the ground, and even myself.  As Chadian food isn’t exactly my favorite, I expect I’ll lose a bit of myself as well (in pounds).

Today is my brother’s 40th birthday.  I wonder if I can call him from the airport in Rome where we’ll have to sit on the runway for an hour between 8 hour flights.

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Disaster Relief Blog Launches

Disaster relief and aid
Devastation caused by disasters

Everyone can picture a hundred different types of disasters and what disaster relief means.  They’re often featured in news reports.  Many of us have also been victims of one type of disaster or another, big or small.  World Concern works in many places around the globe that are especially prone to disasters.  Poverty and vulnerability go hand in hand.

If there is a flood in the US, we generally have insurance and a bit of savings.  If there is a fire, there are firemen.  When our children are ill, we take them to the doctor.  To prevent the worst of illnesses, we have vaccinations available.  In our large and blessed country, if there is a drought in one part of the country help can come from another part across a vast network of paved roads, or reservoirs can be drawn on through another network of pipes and canals.  When we lose our jobs, there are usually unemployment benefits.  Above all, there is stability, security and peace in our land.

Imagine how much more frightening the world would be without any of this.  In such places, World Concern is often enough the only help at hand.

Although we can picture so many different types of disasters – floods, hurricanes, droughts, wars, earthquakes – we often think only of hand-outs as a response.  But there is so much more that can be done.

In our responses to disaster, World Concern tries to help people not only recover their goods, but also their homes, livelihoods and hope for the future.  We strive to help whole communities prevent crises from becoming overwhelming disasters, to reduce their vulnerability and increase their ability to cope.  Above all, we work to help people to find the face of God during some of the worst moments of their lives.

I’m writing this first blog posting on a plane, leaving the cold, damp, dark days of late autumn in Seattle, heading to the glaring, baking semi-desert of eastern Chad in central Africa.  Join me over the next few weeks as I work alongside our team in Chad, serving families who have literally lost everything in the Darfur conflict.

1,000 Crosses on World AIDS Day

Humanitarian relief for world aids day
World Concern is installing 1,000 crosses to raise awareness on World AIDS Day 2008.

Early this morning, I joined a couple of co-workers for an unusual event in front of World Concern’s international headquarters in Seattle.

Hammering by streetlight, we finished placing 1,000 wooden crosses into the ground, each with a red felt ribbon.

Today is World AIDS Day, a time when the general public joins humanitarians to consider the enormity of the HIV and AIDS pandemic.

5,500 people will die today and another 6,000 will be infected. More than two million people will die this year because of AIDS.

The first 500 crosses went into the ground smoothly Sunday afternoon, then we finished in the darkness Monday morning. Hammering was easy. What’s difficult for me is the realization that 1,000 crosses doesn’t even account for one day of deaths due to AIDS. It’s about the number of deaths in four hours.

World AIDS Day 2008
World Concern staff member Tara Garcia helps install 1,000 crosses for World AIDS Day 2008.

What has surprised me in my research of AIDS is that three out of four people who die from AIDS live in Africa, more specifically, sub-Saharan Africa, which is approximately the southern 3/4 of the continent. In this incredibly poor area of Africa, the rate of HIV/AIDS is often between 10 and 60 times higher than in America. Seven countries have rates over 15 percent. Generations are dying.

I am proud of World Concern’s work with those affected by HIV and AIDS. We provide humanitarian relief for those with HIV and AIDS, as well as others affected by the virus, including AIDS orphans. Since 2004, World Concern touched the lives of more than 150,000 people AIDS orphans, and nearly 40,000 caregivers. Our AIDS work includes the countries of Haiti, Zambia and Kenya.

I hope that the crosses help show the reality of AIDS. It is not something to be ignored. Most importantly, it is something you can help change, but supporting organizations like World Concern that have a direct, positive influence on the lives of poor and desperate people.

Feel free to come by today, if you are in the Seattle area. The display will be up today, and gone tomorrow. Of course, the challenge of HIV and AIDS will remain after World AIDS Day, and for that, we ask the you remember those affected by AIDS year-round.

World Concern is located on the campus of CRISTA ministries. The address: 19303 Fremont Ave. N, Shoreline, WA, 98133.

Here’s how to contact me.

World Concern staff member Derek Sciba helps install 1,000 crosses for World AIDS Day 2008.
World Concern staff member Derek Sciba helps install 1,000 crosses for World AIDS Day 2008.

Humanitarian Aid Resources

Whether you work for a humanitarian aid agency or simply care about the poor, it helps to find good resources. Below are a few of my favorites:

Humanitarian aid in kenya africa
Girl at an orphans and vulnerable children sign-up event in Kenya. She is likely an AIDS orphan.

Humanitarian Journey to Kenya – Day 2 and 3 – Matatu

humanitarian aid and relief kenya
Kenyans walk great distances. I was amazed to see people walking for miles in dress shoes.

Day 2: Nothing much to say about this day, other than it’s not an overwhelmingly pleasant experience to try to sleep on 10 to 12 hour plane flights.

On the plus side, the airlines still have not cut the meals from these trans-continental flights. If they did, I am sure there would be a revolt.

Day 3: Daylight was just beginning to break when we arrived in Kenya. It was cooler than I expected, but still a little muggy. I was surprised to find the jet didn’t pull up to a gate. It just parked in the vast expanse of tarmac, a stairway was pulled up next to the plane, and everybody walked off onto the concrete.

We soon bought our visas, cleared customs and hooked up with Tracy, the knowledgeable outgoing country director for Kenya. She led us to our waiting white van. We met the Kenyan driver, an affable fellow named Gordon. He seemed to know a little bit about everything, including a complete history of giraffes in Kenya.

Gordon, our driver in Kenya. He could handle the rough streets and impossible Nairobi traffic jams.
Gordon, our driver in Kenya. He could handle the rough streets and impossible Nairobi traffic jams.

Once on the road, we saw the many matatus, small buses about the size of a Volkswagen Vanagon, packed full of people. The average matatu has 14 seats; it costs less than a dollar for a trip across town, about four dollars to cities two hours away. While some matatus are in good condition, others look as if they have been in a demolition derby, it seems that all matatus are driven in a very spirited fashion. I would not dare to drive in Kenya and am thankful we had a local at the wheel.

I was also amazed to see how many people walk in Kenya. And there are no sidewalks. People have just have cut paths through the trees, even along on the road leading up to the airport. They cannot afford vehicles, so they’re off on foot or bicycles. And just about everybody’s dressed up. It looks like they are off to job interviews, with polished shoes and briefcases as they walk through the dirt. Still, the unemployment here is significant. The country is one of the poorest in the world.

As we drove, we occasionally saw glimpses of the extreme poverty: fields covered in garbage, rows and rows of shacks with metal roofs and people cooking over campfires. Vendors walk through traffic and sell trinkets and newspapers. After we navigated through a couple of smoggy traffic jams, we got checked into the hotel, a quaint place with a couple of security guards that caters toward Christian relief workers.

Tracy then guided us to see where World Concern’s offices in Kenya, Africa. We met the staff, got a rundown of what World Concern does in Kenya, as well as an overview of all of the operations across Africa. This field office is for all of World Concern’s projects in the continent.

humanitarians in kenya
The Matatu, a common way to get around Kenya. These minivans take humanitarians across town and across the country.

Humanitarian Journey to Kenya – Day 1 – Airport

Silhouette of Kenya Africa
Silhouette of wildebeest at the Masai Mara, Southeast Kenya.

Over the course of several weeks, I will post journal entries from my recent trip to Kenya.

Here is day 1:

Today I packed up my video camera, digital camera and all of the rest of my gear and headed to the airport for the long couple of flights that will lead me to Kenya. I met the other travelers, the people I will get to know very well over the next couple of weeks. I already know Lisa, the guide of the group and my co-worker. She’s a devoted mother of two middle-school-aged boys who occasionally takes these around-the-world trips to show donors or potential donors World Concern’s projects.

At the airport, I met John and Linda, a couple with a background in commercial fishing. John often travels up to Alaska to check out his fishing boats, but neither he nor his wife have been to Africa. John and Linda knew of another member of the trip through businesses connections. Her name is Kari, a sharply dressed Norwegian-born woman whose late husband also was in the commercial fishing business.

I also met Cari and Todd, who have three younger children and a real estate development business. All of those on the trip obviously have some degree of interest in humanitarian aid, helping those in the developing world. We had dinner together, then we were off to our flight to London’s Heathrow airport.

Before we took off, I called my wife, who is six months pregnant with our first child.

World Concern in Kenya
World Concern supporters walking along a road near Karen, Kenya.