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One Month After the Tsunami, Thousands Return to Class

Indonesia, January 24, 2005

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    A group of school children return to class in Aceh Province, Indonesia after a Mercy Corps cash-for-work program cleaned up the school following the tsunami. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps. Photo:

When thousands of children return to school on Wednesday, after their traditional month-long break, they will find something missing: mud. The tsunami that devastated Northern Sumatra on Dec. 26 did not destroy most of this area’s schools, but it did leave many of them ankle-deep in black slime, almost guaranteeing they would not re-open on schedule.

But in early January, Mercy Corps, in partnership with several local organizations, launched a clean-up campaign aimed at 14 schools and employing more than 300 local workers. Equipped with rubber boots, shovels and wheel barrows provided by Mercy Corps, the workers removed countless truckloads of mud, cleared debris, and cleaned furniture. Despite the lack of heavy equipment and daily torrential rains, the crews restored dozens of classrooms to their previous condition while earning 35,000 rupiahs (or about $3.90, a standard daily wage here) per day under Mercy Corps’ Cash-for-Work program. Reporting on this Cash-for-Work project, The Wall Street Journal called Mercy Corps “one of the most innovative of the 50-plus charities working on Sumatra.”   

Lukman Ali, headmaster at a local high school, said the program has been a glimmer of hope amid a disaster that killed at least 20 percent of the school’s 1,500 students and 96 teachers.  “Kids have been coming in every day to ask when school would be starting again,” Mr. Ali said. Some 50 students showed up several days in a row to volunteer their help. “They are just itching to get back,” he adds.

Educators are heartened, noting that the familiarity of the school routine will offer critical stability and emotional relief to local children. “Schools are going to play a big part in the healing,” says Cynthia Tindongan, a psycho-social expert who is coordinating Mercy Corps’ response in this area.