July 18, 2005
Volunteers' paradise in tsunami relief
BY Eric Rangus
The photos still remain. More than half a year after a tsunami killed some 300,000 people in 11 countries, pictures of men, women and children are tacked up on bulletin boards in hotels and public spaces in Phuket, Thailand, one of the cities hardest hit by the disaster.
The pictures—the smiling faces—are all that is left of the many who were swept away. “It’s heartbreaking to know that so many of these people haven’t been found and never will be,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a rising senior economics and political science double major from Seoul, South Korea, which is where she is spending the rest of her summer break. She spent the first part in Thailand.
The pictures in Phuket are of every age and many nationalities. Many notices are written in Swedish. That hits Lindstrom hard—her father’s family is from that country. One picture is of a 4-year-old Swedish boy. His mother and brother have already been found dead, but he is still missing, washed away by the devastating wave.
“Although it is clear that none of these people will be found,” Lindstrom said again, “I guess no one had the heart to take them down.”
While Phuket was devastated by the tsunami, it is one of the areas in Thailand that has been quickest to recover. “Other than some construction sites here and there, the only reminder of the tragedy were the signs of the missing hanging in hotel lobbies and public places,” Lindstrom said.
Visiting Phuket was not the goal of Lindstrom’s trip to Thailand. She had much deeper goals. Accompanied by her friend Vikash Parekh, ’03C, they set out to reach them.
Before they even stepped on a plane for Southeast Asia, Lindstrom and Parekh did a great deal to help in relief efforts. Both were in Asia when the tsunami hit the day after Christmas—Lindstrom at home in Seoul and Parekh at a wedding in India.
When Lindstrom returned to Atlanta, her goal was to raise funds for tsunami relief. Her efforts were joined by fellow student Snehal Shah, ’05C, president of the Indian Cultural Exchange, and together they helped form Emory Tsunami Relief.
A LearnLink conference (soon to number more than 400 subscribers) was set up, and programming—including a candlelight vigil and a benefit show—was planned. On-campus donation tables were everyday sights. Parekh did his part by visiting area businesses to solicit funds. He spearheaded advertising and developed a petition to send to President George W. Bush. The goal was to raise $5,000. By the end of March, nearly $20,000 had been collected. Still, they wanted to do more.
“It’s frustrating to see so much destruction and not be able to do anything about it,” said Parekh, from Port St. Lucie, Fla. He majored in neuroscience and behavioral biology and will begin dental school at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. “It’s one thing to collect money,” he said. “But it is something completely different to give your time.”
So that’s what they set out to do. Many of the larger relief agencies were looking for volunteers with special skills, such as engineers or doctors. Some of the smaller nonprofits, though, offered a chance to participate without previous training.
The international nonprofit Openmind Projects gave the pair an opportunity to work as English teachers at a primary school while they helped rebuild an orphanage. Though neither spoke Thai, Lindstrom and Parekh signed up and committed to spend a month (May 30–June 29) in Thailand.
When they arrived there was no orphanage, only a lot of youngsters to teach in the tiny village of Ban Taa Din Deng. The village was relatively unaffected by the tsunami—the poverty was more endemic. Lindstrom and Parekh were fortunate to stay in a home with indoor plumbing and a floor made of something other than dirt. Most of the other buildings were not so nice. The children were eager to learn and precocious. Most had never seen a non-Thai and followed their guest teachers everywhere.
That was their schedule during the week. On the weekends, they were on their own, and Lindstrom and Parekh made the most of the time. Phi Phi Island, a ferry ride away from Phuket, about 90 minutes from Ban Taa Din Deng, was a central area of rebuilding. Much of the work was small-scale—a few dozen volunteers, wanting to lend a helping hand.
Each weekend, Lindstrom and Parekh traveled first to Phuket, then caught a boat to Phi Phi. While the cleanup work was inspiring, it was equal parts tedious, backbreaking and overwhelming by the sheer enormity of it all. Volunteers hailing from Europe, Australia, the United States and elsewhere would work all day and clear just a few square feet. Parekh moved large rocks and carried buckets upon buckets of debris. The smaller Lindstrom wielded a shovel. They sifted through sand, picking out tiny bits of broken glass.
“We mostly shoveled glass and concrete, but once in a while we found things that reminded us people had been living there,” Lindstrom said. “To the side we kept a pile of things that may have been important to someone—toothbrushes, swimming suits and children’s shoes. While I saw evidence of the devastation everywhere, it’s hard to imagine the full extent of the disaster.”
The beaches, slowly returning to the pristine, white paradise they were before the tsunami, once had been littered with 400 bodies.
“It’s very humbling,” Parekh said. “You spend hours cleaning up an area, but in the wider scope of things, it’s just a small patch of land compared to everything else that needs to be done. That’s a big motivator.”
There is a slogan that’s frequently repeated on Phi Phi island: “Return To Paradise.” It’s a saying Lindstrom continually replays in her mind. “While many struggle to return to their old lives, the overall mood is very positive and everyone is focused on moving forward. I’m just very grateful that I had the opportunity to be a small part of the effort.”