Saturday, March 31, 2012

Thank You, Emergency Managers!

For last few days, it has been raining in Puerto Rico. Five districts are flooded and there are reports of landslides and some damage to infrastructure. After monitoring for a couple of days, the State government decided to activate the Emergency Operations Center, which meant all the concerned emergency managers had to sacrifice their plans with their families for the weekend.

I have the honor of working with some of them. As the operations were being planned, I looked around the room, my dear colleagues looked tired after a long working week. They might be waiting to relax during the weekend. But it was so impressive to see that none of them said no to their duty, none of them thought of calling their spouses before committing to work without taking any time off.

One more time, I was in awe of the committment of emergency managers. While they do their day-to-day work and take care of their families, they are always ready to respond for those they may not even know. When an emergency occurs, they respond immediately. Unfortunately sometimes their work is taken for granted and at times, conviniently criticized.

To be able to respond immediatly, they postpone their personal plans, may break promises to their dear ones, forget about the next cup of coffee that they hoped to drink. And when they go out, many times they don't know what time they will come back or whether they will come back or not...

You might think why I am talking about emergency personnel on this blog. Actually their work is directly related to maintaining and restoring peace in many ways. Part of the reason why we take our family out on the road is because we know that the law and order personnel are in control. After an emergency strikes, when we see somebody with Red Cross emblem, we feel somewhat relaxed.

But for these people to establish that credibility, they have to leave the comfort of their house to assist others as many times as required. Yes, some of them get paid for it but not all. Emergency response personnel and their families put their plans on hold for the good of others. They find their peace of mind in restoring peace for others. I am fortunate to be working with them and learning from them.

For all those who put their personal life in the back for seat for others, my salute to you! And I hope that my readers and I can acknowledge your work and commitment wherever we are. Big Thanks!!!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Disasters may be strong but human resilience is stronger

For the last ten years, I have been working with disaster survivors. During this time, I met with hundreds of survivors and tried to learn from them. While most visible and obvious destruction was caused to their houses and infrastructure, bigger damaged done was inside them. Fear, helplessness, anger and loss of control are some examples of what disaster survivors feel. Needless to say, none of these feelings help to restore the inner peace.

Photo from Google
Impact of disasters is more complex than what meets the eye. While conducting psychosocial assessment in IDP (Internally Displaced Population) camps in Sri Lanka post-tsunami, I met a boy who must be about 12 years old. His intelligence immediately impressed me. During the first half of the conversation, he tried to convince me  that things weren't too bad for them and his grandmothers were taking care of him and his brother and his father was working to clear the debris on the road as part of the 'cash for work' program. But I knew something was not right so I continued the conversation with him before I moved on to the next survivor.

I asked him about his mother. He said she is in Libya as a migrant worker and her employer wouldn't let her come back as her contract was at least for a year. And that is why both grandmothers were staying with them and trying to support the two kids. Their house was totally destroyed and they were living in a school shelter. However, for this boy, the tsunami had affected something more important than his house, his vision. His glasses broke as he was trying to escape. He couldn't read from the blackboard anymore in class. But he wouldn't tell his father because he knew he was dealing with bigger problems. 'If my mother was here, probably I would have told her', he said.

My heart broke, I saw my son in him. This was yet another moment in my professional career where I had to hold my tears and collect all my strength to do the right thing. I knew I couldn't bring his mother back but I could do what she would've done in this particular instance. I asked the boy and his grandmother if we could go and buy the glasses for him. The boy guided us to an optician inland and we got him his glasses. We requested him not to tell anybody about this assistance because that was not part of the program and we did not want to raise false expectations amongst other survivors.

That day I learned that disaster assistance was way beyond and complex than the traditional assistance packages that arrive at the scene. Every human being is unique and so are their needs and required responses. And a bunch of outsiders will never be able to attend to their needs adequately.

Learning from 'La Mesa' community in Puerto Rico
That is why for an appropriate disaster response, local people need to be involved actively, even before a disaster occurs. A disaster can strike anywhere anytime and therefore, ALL of US need to be ready as disaster responders. We need to know who lives in our neighborhood, who might need a little extra help to be able to survive; survive with dignity. For example, are there children without sufficient support? Is there a person with disability that might need support with evacuation in my neighborhood?

These are simple things but can save lives. Our knowledge before a disaster can help those who come to help after a disaster has happened . While disaster is an event that goes beyond the capacity of the community to respond, resilience is the capacity within the person or the community to bounce back after an adverse event


We can enhance this capacity by coming together, learning from each other, being ready for appropriate action when needed. While we cannot control the occurrence of disasters, we can mitigate their effects on us and can expedite our recovery. All we need is to expect the unexpected, prepare for it and commit  to support each other and guide the outsiders who may come to assist us. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sri Lanka and UN

Having lived and worked in Sri Lanka for two years after the 2004 tsunami, I have many beautiful memories of the island, fondly know as the 'Pearl' of Indian Ocean.  While serving the tsunami survivors I was blessed with many long lasting relationships that I still enjoy. As a humanitarian, I learned ways to recognize and enhance community resilience after a major disaster. 

However, I also remember the day when a bomb exploded next to our office in Columbo and how fear swept through the team, especially for my Sri Lankan colleagues. I remember trying to comfort a Tamil girl and a Sinhala girl and both expressed the same fears. Their concerns and tears were identical. We all prayed for peace for that beautiful island but we didn't know that it was going to be much worse before getting better.

Many reports including those from the UN claim that many atrocities were committed from both sides especially towards the end of the war. According to these reports, tens of thousands of civilians were killed in 2009 and those who survived were denied of basic human rights. 


Today, the United Nations Human Rights Council urged Sri Lanka to thoroughly investigate allegations of atrocities committed during the island nation's long and brutal civil war (http://edition.cnn.com/2012/03/22/world/asia/sri-lanka-war-crimes/index.html). This resolution seeks to promote reconciliation and accountability in the country after 27 year civil war. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, 'lasting peace can only come through true reconciliation and holding perpetrators to account.' (http://www.canada.com/news/Lanka+should+punish+civil+crimes+forum/6343019/story.html). 24 countries including India, US, Switzerland voted in favor, 15 countries including China, Russia, Uganda voted against the resolution while 8 countries abstained.

It saddens my heart when such allegations are made against Sri Lankan soldiers and it is even more painful when instead of investigating thoroughly into it, many good people just want to close their eyes on the whole issue. If the atrocities were committed against the civilians from either side, it is prudent to carry out a neutral inquiry and have those who are responsible face the consequences. 

As an Indian, I am proud that India voted for the investigation. However, this is also a good time for India to also introspect regarding the human rights situation within its own borders. I am aware of many human rights organizations that constantly monitor and report violations of human rights in India. Maybe the cases in India are not as big as the 2009 war crimes in Sri Lanka but we do have cases where human beings are denied of their basic rights in the name of caste system, corruption and control. 

We all, whether the US, India or Sri Lanka, need to look within while we want to correct the whole world. No country becomes smaller because it allows investigation regarding the questionable actions for its officials. On the contrary, accountability for all it's citizens and their rights makes it greater!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Shine Bright, Little Light!

Apologies for being away for a long time. During the last month, I have been on a roller coaster of life, have had moments of ecstasy during my recent trip to India for my little brother's wedding and moments of shock and sadness when I heard that his beautiful wife's mother passed away due to cardiac arrest.

Death of a dear one can snatch away peace from your soul. It becomes very difficult to find peace during the gloomy night of helplessness. It frustrates the heck out of us when we can't hold our dear for another moment or call them back from wherever they have transitioned. These are the moments of utter desolation.

However, eventually we start seeing the stars of hope in the dark sky and the fireflies of aspirations begin slowly light up our being. And then the sun composed of reasons of happiness begins  another day of our life. I too am waiting for that morning to gently walk into our lives and in the lives of all those who are experiencing the loss of their dear one.

For some that morning will come sooner and for others it may take longer but it will surely come. In the meantime, let's look for our stars of hope and fireflies of aspirations because peace is hidden in these flickers of light and no matter how small it is, light conquers the darkness. 

Ah, The Moments of Faith!

Faith and fear, How different they are, To find a place in my heart, They're always at war! There are moments, When fear w...