SOCIETY

From Rhodes to tsunami disaster zone

Natascha Barrymore was working for a company representing airlines in Rhodes when news of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami broke. Barrymore, who had been living in Greece since 1991, was as shocked as everyone else. But unlike most people, who watched the death toll rise to 50,000 on their television screens as the new year approached, she decided to pack up her bags, and, two weeks after the tsunami hit, moved to the particularly hard-hit disaster and conflict zone in Indonesia to help.

More than five years later, Barrymore returned to Greece for a short time before traveling back to the Indonesian village where she lives and works. She?s came to Athens to share her experiences of starting and running Chance International, an aid organization that assists vulnerable communities in the world?s fourth most populous country achieve sustainable development and create opportunities and a future for themselves ? especially for its youngest, unprotected citizens.

?I get so filled with emotion that I have to fight back tears; they are tears of joy and pride in these children,? Barrymore says of the young boys and girls who enroll in Chance?s programs, now coming from eight villages and counting. Chance?s education, health, child welfare and community support programs in the impoverished areas of Aceh Besar, she explains, have managed to instill hope where previously there was none. When she first traveled to Aceh Besar ? which she soon found was not only battered by the tsunami but also by three decades of social conflict ? to start up the programs, she was shocked to find that children not only lacked access to medical care or schooling but couldn?t even envision a better life. When she asked what they dreamed of being when they grew up, they couldn?t understand the question.

Now it?s different. The children always have an answer in hand for Barrymore, and it spans the gamut from ?doctor? and ?teacher? to ?astronaut? and ?president of Indonesia.?

?The older girls are becoming so proactive in their lives and futures,? Barrymore says. ?After the tsunami, when they moved down from the mountains into barracks, someone taught them to make bags by crochet; they came to me and asked if it was possible to help them buy the materials. They thought that with a little practice the bags would be good enough to sell. That would mean they would not need to work in the brick factory after school any longer. Another group have asked if they could help in the kindergarten so they can start learning, with the aim of one day becoming teachers so they could help other children. Just a few short months ago, not one of them looked to their future as anything else than a brick factory worker.?

Although she had volunteered with aid organizations before 2005, Barrymore acknowledges with a big smile that, as she got on the plane, she ?was naive in the extreme… I just packed a bag and went.? She knew, though, that she could offer her skills in organization, along with a diverse upbringing that had included growing up in the UK, Germany and the Middle East (Indonesia has the world?s largest population of Muslims), with an Indian father and a German mother.

Barrymore purposely went to the area worst affected by the natural disaster, and was the only Westerner to travel to the conflict areas in January and February 2005. ?Faced with the choice of making little difference to the welfare of many and a great difference to the welfare of a few,? she formally set up Chance International, a registered UK charity, in 2008.

The first place to be served by Chance was in Aceh Besar, one of the districts worst hit by the tsunami. Prior to the disaster, the area had suffered 30 years of internal conflict. Many of the men had been killed and families were separated. A report published by Save the Children found 83.37 percent of the children in orphanages had families, while 42 percent of the children had both parents alive.

Outside the family, Barrymore saw the region?s businesses, farms and livelihoods were swept away by the tsunami. Only one industry was hiring; the local brick factories. Women worked in dire conditions for 1.30 euros a day.

Long-term prospects didn?t exist for the villagers. Parents placed older children in the factories to work in order to supplement the family income, while education was seen as a poor choice, as it drained it. And even the brick factories were beginning to close.

Unsurprisingly, the area lacked daycare facilities, kindergartens, schools and community activities. An overview by Chance found absence of access to education rendered the second generation illiterate and therefore barred them from any opportunity to lift themselves out of extreme poverty.

Since the establishment of Chance, multiple villages have participated in its programs. Besides children?s programs, there are classes to teach women skills such as sewing, dressmaking as well as making furnishings and accessories ? the goal being that women will have a skill that can earn them an income. Chance has also set up a library, while residents now have access to and can obtain training in healthcare, dental hygiene, nutrition and operations.

But Barrymore stresses that more must be done. Funding is needed to continue the existing programs and kick-start new ones. All the money the charity raises goes directly to its beneficiaries. No salaries or expenses are paid to administrators and only local staff receive a salary.

Chance?s new child sponsorship program, in which sponsors can donate as little as 11 euros per month, is what Barrymore says she is most excited about at the moment. Each child receives an individual financial plan to cover their educational needs until university, while the child and sponsor are in direct contact via e-mail. Money is saved in local banks that specialize in microfinance, which in turn provides jobs for local communities. ?The benefits of this program are vast,? Barrymore explains, adding that she thinks providing education and jobs in the area will lessen the attraction of seeking employment abroad as an unskilled worker. ?It gives the child and family the security of knowing educational costs are covered… Being so integrated into the community, we are in the unique position to both see where there is need and monitor the progress of the children on a daily basis.?

How does Barrymore see her own role, as she travels back and forth from her base in the Indonesian village to Europe in search of funds? ?I think I?m a bridge for people who want to want to help, and people get so much out of it by helping.?

One of the village children whose future is looking brighter thanks to Chance International, Mawardah wrote a letter of thanks to Barrymore. ?I really do not want to remember how bad it was for a poor family like us, to be afraid to think of the future. Now I just do anything I can to improve my future. The one thing I want if there is the opportunity is to make a better life for myself and family,? wrote the 14-year-old.

For further information on Chance International and its efforts in Indonesia, visit www.chanceinternational.net.