Returning favor, Indonesians aid Katrina's victims

Insafi Gulo was asleep above the shop where she worked on the island of Nias when an aftershock rocked the west coast of Indonesia three months after the tsunami.

The five-story building collapsed, trapping her beneath piles of rubble. Worried she wouldn't be found in time, she eventually freed herself, losing her right foot in the process.

After receiving a prosthesis, and more than a year of rehabilitation, Ms. Gulo is now a volunteer here in the United States, ripping out drywall and hammering nails in devastated communities along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. She is one of eight Indonesian tsunami survivors and aid workers who, having witnessed international relief firsthand, are now reciprocating with some of their own.

And though it's their first trip to America, their first experience with cold weather, and their first time in a thrift shop and a casino, the volunteers have found common ground with those they aid.

"It makes me really happy to help people who suffered the way I did," says Gulo as a smile works its way across her face.

The volunteers' two-week trip was inspired by a letter to aid groups. "I believe that people in New Orleans - victims of Katrina - must have ... supported victims of Tsunami in Aceh - through many kinds of supports," wrote Sigit Wijayanta, executive director of the Christian Foundation for Community Development in Indonesia. "We are also eager to seek for what kind of help we can offer to the victims of Katrina to release some of their burden."

US group funds trip

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which had been working in Indonesia since the 2004 tsunami, responded. It helped pick the volunteers and funded their two-week trip to the US. The volunteers y rebuild homes by day, sleep in tents at night, and make friends wherever they go.

"I was nervous about coming because I thought that Americans were mean to everyone," says Triayu Prastiwi Kodrat, a relief worker with Church World Service-Indonesia, who has become partial to Lays potato chips and sweet tea. "But everybody has been so nice and they want us to feel good here."

Besides the change in attitude (even though the Indonesian men were detained by US immigration officials for 2-1/2 hours), Ms. Kodrat says she will bring back to her country the sense of volunteerism that pervades US culture.

In Indonesia, her relief group had to post want ads and pay salaries when it needed help after the tsunami. "But that's not the way it is in America," she says. "People come and volunteer without getting paid."

Novianus Patanduka, also with the Church World Service-Indonesia, left a 3-day-old baby to come to the US. "It really affected our hearts when we saw what happened here. It was the same thing that happened in the tsunami."

Even so, the wealth - even in America's poorest state - surprised him: "You really can't compare the suffering of Katrina with the suffering of the tsunami. Here, even the poorest people still have cars beside their [government- provided] trailers. When you go out into the most devastated parts of Indonesia, all the people have is their own physical strength."

Mr. Novianus also noticed that US progress seven months after the natural disaster was much more rapid than Indonesia's - in part, he believes, because those affected are much more active participants in reconstruction.

Lessons from the Indonesians

While the Indonesians were impressed by America's disaster-response and volunteerism, there are many things Americans can learn from them, says Rebecca Young, liaison for the tsunami-recovery effort of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

"They are actually better about community organizing, teaching people how to set up cooperatives, and creating revolving loan programs - all of which creates economic independence," says Ms. Young, also a Presbyterian minister. "I've never been comfortable with America's soup-kitchen kind of response. We give [people in need] stuff but we don't take that next step to help them stand on their own."

One night last week at a Baptist church in Biloxi, Miss., hurricane survivors treated the Indonesians to a dinner of homemade red beans and rice, chicken gumbo, collard greens, and sweet potato pie and told their stories.

Flora Jackson described how she and her family escaped drowning. "After three or four days, I was so hungry. I didn't know what to do," she says. The Indonesians nod with understanding. After dinner, they hug the Katrina survivors and leave them with a song.

"The Lord is my strength," their voices blended in Indonesian. "Even if the earth shakes and the storms come. I'll fly high with him."

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