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. 

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