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A Return to School and Familiarity

Indonesia, January 25, 2005

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    A Mercy Corps cash-for-work program cleaned and repaired schools in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, so that students could return to school on time. Photo: Ralph King/Mercy Corps Photo:

When thousands of Acehenese children troop back to school this week (January 26) after their traditional month-long break, they will find something missing: mud. The tsunami that devastated Northern Sumatra on December 26 did not destroy most of this city’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 non-governmental agencies, launched a breakneck clean-up campaign aimed at 10 schools and employing more than 400 people. The workers, equipped with rubber boots, shovels and wheel barrows provided by Mercy Corps, removed countless truckloads of mud, cleared debris, and cleaned furniture. They also found seven corpses, which were carried away for burial, says Sogi Maskat, who supervises Mercy Corps’ school cleaning effort here.

Despite the lack of heavy equipment and daily torrential rains, the crews have already restored eight of the schools to their previous condition. The workers, some of whom lost their homes and means of livelihood to the tsunami, earn 35,000 rupiahs per day (or about $3.90, a standard wage here) under a cash-for-work program also used by Mercy Corps to clear miles of neighborhood access roads in the region.

For Lukman Ali, headmaster at one of the city’s best high schools known as SMU III, the program has been a glimmer of hope amid a disaster that killed at least 20% 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 says, standing at the school entryway during another downpour. 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 by this, 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.

At many schools, the tsunami also ruined textbooks and other teaching materials. So Mercy Corps is helping its target schools obtain replacement materials offered locally by UNICEF. In addition, it hopes to provide back-to-school kits—pencils, paper and other supplies—for returning students.

While Mercy Corps provided funding and management of the school clean-up, the impetus for the effort came from local authorities, says Diane Johnson, the organization’s director of Sumatra relief operations. “It’s the government that’s pushing to get the schools open, which is great,” she says.

Crew members say they are glad to have jobs that will help their city recover but it is hard, dirty, and occasionally dangerous work. One day, for example, while cleaning the school’s library, some workers uncovered a 15-foot python coiled under a desk. Incredibly, four men managed to drag the snake, which was as fat as a fireplace log, out into the street and wrestle it into a bamboo cage without injury.