While media reports have concentrated on government and NGO fund-raising campaigns to help the victims of the Indonesian tsunami, in which up to 200,000 people are believed to have died in countries bordering the Indian Ocean, and even more are destitute and homeless, Christian missionaries on the ground are playing a key role in providing food and shelter to the victims, and will play a crucial role in re-establishing businesses and communities, long after the overseas agencies and governments have left.
Some of these have close connections with Australia, including the Salesian Missions, well known to readers for their work in East Timor, and Sister Stella Edattu, a member of the all-Indian religious order, the Daughters of Mary, which is supported by the Assisi Aid Projects.
There are Salesian missions in most of the affected countries, including south India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, with over 300 priests, brothers and sisters in the seriously affected area of Chennai (south India) alone. In Thailand, the bishop in the area which includes the tourist centres of Phuket and the island of Phi Phi, Bishop Joseph Prathan, is a Salesian.
The Salesians even have a school on the South Andaman Islands, which were devastated. All are heavily involved in assisting the victims.
Brother Michael Lynch, head of the Salesian Mission Office in Australia, launched an immediate appeal for assistance, pointing out that up to 1000 local Salesians are heavily involved on the ground in rescue and relief work.
In appealing for funds for food, clothing and emergency shelter to support this work, Br Lynch said: "In India the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala have suffered considerable damage." Salesian schools have been set up as emergency centres in each of these states, caring for many hundreds of the homeless.
Brother Lynch added that in Sri Lanka, a major concern is for the children who have lost their parents, and parents who have lost their children.
A Sri Lankan Salesian, Fr Pinto, outlined the role of his Order: "We know lots of people are offering immediate needs with food and clothing. But we need to plan something on a long-term basis, such as building houses, and looking after orphan children. The national Child Protection Authority has asked us to take the children who are orphaned.
"We Salesians are working toward shelter for at least 12 per cent of these children who are orphaned by the tsunami in the Western and Southern Region and also 10 per cent from the Tamil-speaking area of North and East.
"We are also working towards building at least 350 houses for the homeless and resettling them in life.
"In Negombo [a coastal village in Sri Lanka], we have already begun making soil blocks to make 350,000 bricks, to build houses in our immediate surrounding. Our main problem is looking for land, We cannot put them back on the beach and the land away from the sea is very costly. In other places where people are affected they more or less get food and clothing."
In Thailand the worst affected area is in the Diocese of Surathani headed by Salesian Bishop Joseph Prathan who has set up a Relief Centre. The Centre, staffed by young Salesians and the Sisters, is working closely with government and other private agencies. Bishop Joseph said that he is also helping villages, ravaged by the tidal wave, that other agencies have been unable to assist.
In southern India, the tsunami has also devastated the area where Sister Stella Edattu works.
Since 1975, she has transformed the lives of many rural women by means of community development programs initiated by the Assisi farm she founded in Tamil Nadu, with assistance from many Australians. Serving as a people's learning centre where poor farmers are introduced to sustainable and ecologically sound practices in agriculture, the training centre caters for girls from very poor families. At the end of the training, each girl is given a cow, or any other animal worth $250, and is expected to pass the acquired knowledge to at least ten other women.
Sister Stella has also pioneered a financial co-operative to free families from rapacious money-lenders.
Her development model involves training women, selected by their local communities, with the skills needed to establish and operate Self Help Groups (SHGs), credit co-ops and small-scale income generating initiatives.
She trains community development workers to establish Self Help Groups, typically involving poor women, supporting credit co-ops and income-generating initiatives through training and professional assistance.
The non-government organisation she manages supports over 1000 Women's Self Help Groups with 19,638 members, 95 Men's Groups with 1561 members, and 105 Children's Self Help Groups with 2066 members
Revolving loans operating within SHG credit co-ops last year had a value of over nine million Rupees (approx $300,000).
In addition, the Self Help Groups have secured low interest bank loans to the value of about eight million Rupees (approx $256,000).
Sister Stella was a keynote speaker at the Women in Agriculture held in Melbourne in 1994, and the recipient in 1998 of a Women's World Summit Foundation award for her work with the poor in India.
- To assist Sister Stella, mail your tax-deductible donation to Assisi Aid Projects - India Inc., PO Box 298, Strathfieldsaye, Vic 3551, or call the Assisi Office on (03) 5439 3161 or 0409 802 051.
- To help the Salesian Missions' Tsunami Appeal, contact the Salesian Missions Office, PO Box 264, Ascot Vale, Vic 3032. These donations are also tax-deductible.