Tuesday, August 22, 2006

From the frontlines of relief work: Day 1

Sadly, it seems like such a regular occurrence nowadays. You open the newspaper or turn on the tv and you learn of a natural disaster somewhere- earthquakes, floods, tsunamis. Thankfully, the sense of humanity is alive and well in so many that funds and supplies begin flowing into affected areas. I've heard stories about relief work, particularly after the Pakistan earthquake. The fighting, crowding and overall lack of order that leds to disproportionate distribution. The strongest get the most, while the weak end up with nothing.

Doing relief work in the flooded slums of Ahmedabad is my first experience doing field work and the I learned firsthand the first day why the choas occurs. The first time we went out to distribute, it was an ABSOLUTE madhouse. People surrounding us from all directions- oh behn, oh bhai, muje bhi do na. Yelling and shouting doesn't do a whole lot of good when you are on a crowded street and have 30-40 people pushing and shoving. Having more manpower wouldn't help the situation that much. In the midst of it, Jagatbhai made a snap decision to close shop and head back. Distribution would only happen if things were more organized.

The second time we went back, we went to the Khadi Board. An enclosed area. People had gotten the families to line up. One by one, they came to the van to get their food packet. It went well for a while, we had help from some locals, without whom the order would have been unachievable. But at soon as the people inside were taken care of and the gates opened to let people in from the outside, it was chaos again.

The third time, Jayeshbhai came with us. The families in the Khadi Board were sitting with their families passing time. He got up onto a cart and began to speak.

"We understand your pain and the hardships you are going through. We see the effects of the flood waters. Each of you is our brother, our sister, mother or father and we are here to share the hardships you are going through. People outside these walls want to help and they are sending food for you so that you don't go hungry. When they give us food, they are giving us their trust that it will be distributed properly and equitably. But when we come to give food, you surround from all sides. You are not beggars, you are our brothers and sisters. This food is for you. But when you act like beggars and crowd around us, we are unable to distribute it, which makes all of us look bad and leads to people not wanting to give supplies. We are here to help and need your support so please stay in your place and we'll come around to give you food."

The words struck the people and no one moved as we moved amidst them giving them food. They started cheering and clapping when Jayeshbhai then took a bite from one of their plates. There are many times that we too get our meal or snack by eating with those affected.

After Jayeshbhai spoke, I went over to a corner where his voice wasn't here and repeated what he said. The people understood everything and readily gave their support.

From that first evening's distribution, I saw the power of love and patience. By talking to them, treating them as humans and communicating our ideas and sentiments things can change.

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