Disaster Relief Journal: Day 7

disaster relief office
Not your standard disaster relief office, huh?

Today in the world of disaster relief was mostly an office and meeting day.  Yes, even here.  My least favorite kind of day.

The office is about 100m up a sandy road from the house.  Not far, but far enough for several children to ask me for something.  A year ago, very few would be so bold.  Apparently, soft-hearted but soft-headed disaster relief workers have been giving things to children who haven’t asked for anything but friendship.  Now the children no longer value us as people, certainly not adults who their culture would demand them to be respectful of.  It is a shame because it has made it much more difficult to get to know the kids.  It wasn’t like that just one year ago, and I miss the easy, joyful interaction with them.

First thing, most of the staff were called together for a disaster relief staff meeting.

We have been encouraging them to get bank accounts at the bank in Abeche (a full day’s drive away) for reasons of security, with only a portion of it given in cash here.  So they were given an account application form and an explanation.  Then we moved on to programmatic issues and the start-up of our third phase of the program.  They are quite anxious to get into the activities.

After the disaster relief meeting we moved into other meetings with the Country Director, Adrian, and the Livelihoods Coordinator, Derrek where we talked about more strategic stuff as well as details of several grants.  Right now they are the only expats here.  Ayamba was supposed to arrive back today from vacation, but the plane that he was supposed to take was taken by an entourage which included John McCain’s wife.  Random, eh?!

Disaster relief workers in chad
Disaster relief workers in Chad, Africa

Through most of the afternoon, I worked on training materials and boring stuff.  Late in the afternoon the field staff returned and the office became lively again.  They get back at about 3:30, then do their reports and stuff for the day.  The guys in the picture are sorting out requests for seeds from some of the people we will be helping to cultivate later this month.

Now, we are sitting in the Landcruiser outside the wall of the wall of UN HCR checking our email using their wireless signal.  The crew from ACTED, another NGO, are in a vehicle parked just behind us.  HCR used to let us go in and use their conference room, which then became a good place to meet other NGO people, but now we meet in a dusty street.  Ah well, at least it is a connection.

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Disaster Relief Journal: Day 6

Disaster relief in an IDP camp
A young girl waiting for disaster relief by a clay pot called a Dabanga used to store grain

Last night, after 2 very short nights, I slept soundly for 12 hours and woke up without a fever as the guys were coming back from church.  It would really stink to spend a bunch of my limited time out here being incapacitated so I’m really trying to rest up today and kick this bug before I really dive head-first into the disaster relief work in Chad.

While lounging around today, casually washing out a few bits of clothing, reading and listening to my MP3 player, I started thinking about yesterday with more and more satisfaction.  I’m weird and get my thrills in weird, obscure ways.

After visiting various projects, on the way back to town, we passed a hut with a very large, newly-made clay pot on its side.  I recognized this as a traditional way people in the Sahel store their grain.  They stand it on end, pour their harvested grain into it, then seal the top with mud to keep pests out and moisture in.  It is a great system that works so much better than sacks and doesn’t require harmful pesticides.  But when people are feeling insecure (like when a disaster is about to happen), they will use sacks so they can run away with them or hide them if they’re attacked.  So I was thrilled to see the dabanga, as it is called.

We stopped to chat with the family.  Only educated people speak French here, so Nick and I spoke with them through one of the staff who translated for us.  In the heat of the day the sun here is really scorching, so women usually collect on mats in small groups in the shade with their smallest children and neighbors to do small hand-tasks until the worst of the heat passes.  The men are usually either off in the market or snoozing in their huts.  It’s a mellow time, a time for catching up on what’s happening and gain strength for the afternoon and evening chores.

Woman in need of disaster relief in Chad Africa
Woman in need of disaster relief in Chad Africa

This is the best time to sit and chat with these busy, industrious women.  I thank my stars that I’m a woman in this job because I can often sit with them and they’ll be at their ease, telling me all sorts of stuff about how they get on in life that they’d never tell a man.  This is critical for knowing what sorts of disaster relief type help they need.  It was about 3pm and three women and a couple of small children at this house were still hanging out in the small asylum of shade afforded by a grass platform.

By normal standards, this dabanga was a bit smaller than you’d see in a village, and they’d often have several of them as well.  This tells me they had a smaller harvest this year than they would have had before the crisis and therefore not nearly enough to carry them through the year – though still a fair amount.  But the very fact that they had been able to find land on which to cultivate anything, that they’d had the confidence in the level of security to invest in planting, and that they’d been able to plant enough to warrant a dabanga was all very positive.  They said they had come from a village about 50km away but still didn’t feel safe enough to live there full time.  Since they were able to get hold of a field nearby, they didn’t risk cultivating their fields in their villages, but they said some others did risk the trip.  As we carried on back to town, we noticed quite a few other dabangas around that camp.  This was such a positive sign it really made my day even with my descent into the flu.

Children who need disaster relief in Chad
Children who need disaster relief in Chad

It made my day because I remember when we first came out to Goz Beida in February last year (2007).  Some people had already been in the camps for 3 months without any help from people providing disaster relief.  They were all but starving.  Several families would share one cooking pot to cook the small amount of food they had.  Few had more than the clothes on their backs.  They were living in very small huts made of grass tied together.  Sources of water were very few and very far.  It would take about 8 hours to get one container of water at a very muddy well.  Whole families were drinking and cooking, living on less than a gallon (4 liters) per person per day in temperatures above 100F (38C), about 1/3 the minimum recommended amount of water.  Sanitation was abysmal.  People were living from day to day, even hour to hour.  There was an outbreak of hepatitis due to the poor sanitation and bad water.

Now, though the food they get from aid is erratic, they are starting to rebuild their asset base and get themselves back on their feet.  Wells and latrines installed by other agencies have addressed the water and sanitation issues, but we had a very large role to play in their recovery at the household level.  Although we are only one of about half a dozen humanitarian organizations working here, our activities have directly benefited these families.  We have directly provided over $1M in direct cash wages to people in the camps over the last year and a half.  This money helped them to buy the basics when the UN rations didn’t materialize and helped them to buy the tools to cultivate, the medicines for their remaining donkeys, clothes, and to give them the hope to plant again.

A dabanga may just be a giant clay pot to some people, but to me it is a sign of hope and encouragement, it is a first sign of a return to some small sense of recovering a lost life.

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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.