January 20, 2005

Graduate student helps relief effort after losing family members

Print More

The effects of the recent South Asia tsunami were felt by the Cornell community, even while students were on their winter break.

Saiful Mahdi grad, whose family lived in Aceh, Indonesia, returned home in early January to search for family members. Mahdi, according to Mazalan Kamis grad, a close friend and neighbor, lost 15 immediate and extended family members in the disaster. Kamis estimated a budget of $6,000 for his return trip and immediately e-mailed his friends to request donations. According to Kamis, as the money flooded in, with over $50,000 in the first week, he created the Aceh Relief Fund, and Mahdi became the fund’s representative in Aceh by helping to lead relief efforts there.

“Saiful, as a grad student in Cornell, is very experienced in providing leadership in times like these. Everyone is rushing to help, but few people can organize effectively. Our group is very effective — we give direct help to the people who are suffering. Other agencies provide aid in camps, but not to the people who went to their relatives that lived in villages unaffected by the tsunami. Saiful realized this gap and the focus became to help those people,” Kamis said.

According to Brendan O’Brien, director of the International Students and Scholars Office, Mahdi is the only known Cornellian affected by the disaster.

For his trip home, the ISSO helped Mahdi with registration issues and also provided financial support.

“All of us were extremely saddened by the loss of life. We’re most concerned with Saiful and his family. We hope that we don’t hear of any other students but we’ll do what what we can to help students who’ve suffered a loss,” O’Brien added.

“Saiful is working with other students who returned to help — they are more effective than other relief agencies because they know the place; they know where to get and give help. We also have no overhead cost; we’re all volunteers, all the money goes straight to Aceh,” Kamis said.

The Aceh Relief Fund has received nearly $61,000. Kamis mentioned that one individual donated $10,000. He attributed the fund’s ongoing success to the fast mobilization of friends and word-of-mouth. An article describing Mahdi’s losses in the tsunami and his trip to Indonesia appeared in the Ithaca Journal on January 3, which Kamis said has generated a lot of interest and support for the fund.

“You can read his journal, his account of how he carries on his day-to-day work in Aceh. Saiful actually established two schools in Aceh before he came to Cornell that were both very successful, but one school was entirely destroyed by the tsunami and the other was damaged,” Kamis said. “We will start rebuilding the other school and make it into an emergency school, a place for the kids to play, to have some normalcy in their life, to have people looking after them. And since these are not government schools, we have the freedom to rebuild without being trapped in government bureaucracy.”

The fund has set up a mobile clinic in the affected area of Aceh, which will include the aid of a physician and nurse, under Mahdi’s leadership. In the long term, the group will “adopt a village or sub-district” and focus their energies on providing aid there. Kamis plans on focusing primarily on health and education, and especially on the welfare of children.

He added, “We do wish for more support from Cornell. You can find more information about the fund at www.acehrelief.org.”

Many other student-run organizations on campus are gradually mobilizing volunteers and relief efforts as the spring semester gets underway.

Kirsten Rose, vice president of the Red Cross Club, said in a statement, “This fundraising is in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity and Cornell EMS. … The Red Cross will be on Ho Plaza the first Monday and Tuesday of classes to collect donations.”

Help A Life, according to its president, Fatima Iqbal, is orchestrating Project Make and Give, a project where students make baby blankets that are donated to infants in need. The organization plans on sending the blankets to a city in India affected by the tsunami.

Individual students are also creative in their efforts.

Evan Variano grad, plans on visiting area high schools with a “tsunami-in-a-tube,” a device that he will use to demonstrate the physics of tsunamis to students.