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A woman's touch

Indonesia, December 23, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fiza Khalida. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Women from Fiza's group in Klieng Meuriah worked hard to bring about the rebirth of their village. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Fiza with some of the chairs her group rents out for weddings, ceremonies and other events. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

In the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami five years ago, the once-bustling village of Klieng Meuriah — like hundreds of villages in Indonesia’s Aceh province — was gone. Its buildings were shattered, its homes reduced to rubble and belongings washed away. But perhaps worst of all was the loss of humanity: dozens died, and those who survived were suddenly scattered in displacement camps across the area.

And so, for a month, the ruins of Klieng Meuriah stood empty. The village was lifeless.

Fiza Khalida was only 19 years old at the time. She found herself living in a makeshift shelter, alongside thousands of other survivors, at a displacement camp near the local airport — 15 miles away from what remained of her village.

During the first days of their displacement, Mercy Corps emergency teams visited the camp and delivered supplies to Fiza and her new neighbors, families from all across Aceh: food, clean water, clothes, cooking utensils and shelter materials.

Those items helped to ease the shock and restore a sense of routine to daily life. But daily life in the camps only reminded survivors like Fiza of what they’d lost. Every day brought uncertainty: when would they be able to return to their villages? What would they find once there? And what would they do then?

Mercy Corps helped answer some of those questions. Within a couple weeks of the tsunami, we launched a cash-for-work program that paid survivors like Fiza a daily wage to return to their villages and begin cleaning up debris. Repairing the infrastructure that remained. Beginning to rebuild what had been lost.

That’s how Fiza, and many of her neighbors, returned to Klieng Meuriah just a month after that tragic day. They were still living in makeshift shelters, but they were home — at least what remained of home.

But the residents of Klieng Meuriah were determined to revive their village. And women like Fiza led the effort. Even while the cash-for-work program was in full gear, Mercy Corps began working with a local women’s group on a community mobilization project.

Over the last five years, Mercy Corps has helped establish 168 project committees in villages like Klieng Meuriah, training them in subjects such as financial reporting and bookkeeping. We’ve also successfully assisted 40 villages in producing their own village plans and infrastructure maintenance plans to guide future development.

Fiza and her neighbors worked with our staff on rebuilding Klieng Meuriah from the ground up. Re-imagining what the village should look like. How it would work. And how its returning neighbors would work together to make the village better than ever.

Over the months that followed, Mercy Corps identify and prioritize what needed to be done. Together, we dug drainage ditches. We built a town hall, community center and public kitchen. We prepared and equipped a soccer field.

Life was returning to Klieng Meuriah, and women like Fiza were making it happen. But a village is more than buildings. It’s activity. It’s business. And Fiza’s group had ideas about that, too.

They made a proposal to Mercy Corps for a grant to start a small business. Fiza’s group received 50 million Indonesian rupiah (about US $5,000) to buy chairs, tents, cooking utensils and food serving equipment. Today, Fiza and 50 of her neighbors run a successful enterprise that rents out this equipment and helps organize weddings and other ceremonies.

The income they receive from these events helps them meet their household needs. And — with each event — their business, their families’ fortunes and the community is growing.

“It took us anywhere from a few months to a few years to re-establish our lives here,” said 24-year-old Fiza, surrounded by her colleagues, who are also her neighbors and friends, “but Mercy Corps has been with us through it all.”

What does it take to rebuild a village that was washed away by the biggest disaster of our time? In the case of Klieng Meuriah, it was a woman’s touch.