Report on the Tsunami Student Tour from the Australian students, Phuoc Huynh and Hue Huynh, and their teacher Glenn Hokin.
The Education International Student Tsunami Tour was organised for EI affiliates and their students whom had responded to the humanitarian crisis following the tsunami on 26th December 2004. The participants included Aloysius Mathews, Jerome Fernandez, Juliane Rethorst, students and teachers from Australia, United Kingdom, Japan, Netherlands and Canada. The purpose of the tour was to; inform member organisations of the progress of EI’s programs, develop links between students and encourage affiliates to develop further initiatives in pursuit of education and humanitarian aims. On Boxing Day 2004, a massive earthquake unleashed its power off the coast of Banda Aceh. Fifteen minutes later, a wave, 35 metres high engulfed Banda Aceh and other coastal villages. The destructive force of the tsunami was beamed into homes throughout the world. As we sat watching the images of human tragedy, tears were shed for our brothers and sisters in Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Massive international support ensued. The level of destruction which struck Banda Aceh and the surrounding villages was overwhelming. It is estimated that at least 220,000 people died in Aceh, more than 20,000 being children. Approximately 2,300 teachers were killed and 1662 schools were damaged. One hundred thousand homes were lost as were the livelihoods of many people who lived along the coast. The loss of roads (neighbourhood roads – 1,361 kms) and 2,267 bridges made transportation very difficult. After the tsunami more than one thousand Non Government Organisations (NGOs) set up in Banda Aceh. Most of these NGOs have since left. Whilst the world’s lens may have changed focus, Education International remains committed to helping the children and improving education. This is something that all member organisations can be very proud of. There have been media reports that state donations are being inappropriately used. There is no validity in any statement which associates Education International with such practices. The work of many NGOs is floundering. Some have found the bureaucracy and corruption difficult to overcome, though many of the difficulties experienced by the NGOs are self made. There are NGOs which failed to do any investigation of labour and material costs. As a result, artificially high prices were paid resulting in a significant rise in the cost of living. The cost of living is now higher in Banda Aceh than in Jakarta. Another impact of these inflated costs was that smaller NGOs were simply unable to pay the prices and thus unable to implement their programs. Lack of coordination led to duplication. Many NGOs put up signs on land, though built nothing. Many NGOs were too interested in self promotion, whereas EI got on with the job. As Jerome Fernandez, EI coordinator in Banda Aceh said, “My people, my children, my teachers know what we have done.” Despite the above obstacles, Education International has succeeded where others could not. It is returning some degree of normality to the lives of the children who have lost so much.
Phuoc Huynh and Hue Huynhwith Acehnese students at one of EI's reconstructed schools
Education International is building 28 government primary schools at a cost of 150, 000 US dollars per school. Fifteen schools will be built in Banda Aceh and 13 in other areas, the furthest EI school is nine hours from the city. It is heartening that EI’s helping hand stretches so far and helps so many. It is estimated that the remaining schools will be complete within the next three months. EI constructed schools are acknowledged as being the model for other organisations. These schools are student friendly. The attributes of the schools include six classrooms, a library, prayer room, staffroom, principal’s office and are complete with furniture and computers. Each school is built to withstand earthquakes. The determination of EI to focus on reconstructing government primary/elementary schools was a critical step in the pursuit of the commitment to achieve “education for all by 2015”. The commitment to provide a free, basic quality education to all children is best advanced through increasing the access to government primary schools. Visits to a number of EI schools reinforced the importance of education. Each school visit brought with it a plethora of emotions. Entering these schools, one could not help but contemplate the tragedy that the children had suffered. The schools changed, though the stories remained the same. School populations were devastated. Children recounted moving stories of seeing family members swept away and entire families wiped out. Such disturbing imagery was very confronting. Each school visit was testament to the strength of human courage and resilience. The inspiration the children provided to us was immeasurable. The sight of the children smiling, laughing and playing together was both uplifting and a reminder of the important role of education. These children are the “new generation” and offer a new hope.
The Australian teacher, Glenn Hokin, with school children in one of the new classrooms
It is warming for the soul to see the number of comprehensive and diverse programs, such as hygiene awareness, being implemented by EI and the success that these programs are having. Training for 1,001 newly appointed teachers has been completed. This is an important strategy in the provision of a basic quality education. Teachers were once provided with no further professional development following their original training. The provision of training is a commonsense approach in providing a quality education. However, it is clear that the government must increase the pay in order to attract more quality teachers. At present, some teachers are paid one US dollar a day. Clearly, working as a becak (pedicab) driver in order to supplement your income, would not contribute to a quality education. The training of 338 teachers in trauma counselling has also been carried out. This is a vital measure in providing support to the children and teachers. Islam teaches that death is a part of the cycle of life and is God’s will, therefore death should be accepted and people should get on with their life. This represents a serious conflict for the people of Aceh. On the one hand they should accept death as God’s will, though on the other they are suffering from severe trauma. As a result, many will not discuss their emotional state. The training of these teachers allows them to identify children suffering trauma, who can then be referred for treatment. Hearing the stories of tragedy and looking into the eyes of the children and teachers, the importance of this program can not be overestimated. Accounts of children crowding around their teacher at the first sight of a storm and others who simply pick up their bags and run for home when rain begins to fall, are indeed very moving. EI is providing 4,000 scholarships to children, with 3,534 already being allocated. These scholarships are deposited into the bank accounts of students. The money allows orphans and other seriously affected children to attend school, where they would otherwise be unable to do so. The astonishing work of EI is even more amazing when one considers that there are only five workers as compared to the hundreds of workers employed in the larger aid organisations. Remarkably, the work of EI does not stop there. As teacher unionists, EI is committed to supporting other workers. EI provides help to other workers through the International Trade Union Confederation. The efforts of EI in such broad areas is a credit to teacher unionists worldwide. Assistance is being provided to help unions to expand and make them more democratic and independent. Programs will be run on capacity building, leadership, organising, health and safety, bargaining and computer classes for trade union officials. There is a clear link between the livelihoods of workers and education. Without a secure and safe workplace, families are unable to send their children to school. This is important work. The Student Tsunami Tour was a confronting, humbling, rewarding and life changing experience. The success of this program is thanks to the hard work and commitment of Jerome Fernandez and his team of workers as well as Aloysius Matthews, whom despite huge obstacles, have achieved remarkable things for the children and teachers of Aceh. The work must not stop with the completion of the schools. It is imperative that we, as students and teacher unionists, maintain our commitment to help our brothers and sisters in Aceh to achieve education for all. The accounts of personal tragedy will live with us forever. As will the smiles and laughter of the new generation and the new hope of Aceh. Phuoc Huynh, Hue Huynh & Glenn Hokin (Australian participants)