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Bringing hope to those who have none

Pakistan, November 4, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The floodwaters are finally receding in parts of Pakistan's Sindh Province like the village of Dur Mohammed, and displaced families are returning to their ruined homes and businesses. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    As part of a Mercy Corps-sponsored cash-for-work project, 40-year-old Lal Khatoon will teach basic hygiene to her neighbors in Dur Mohammed. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Villagers rebuild a road destroyed by flood waters in Dur Mohammed, as part of Mercy Corps' cash-for-work program. Photo: Julie Denesha for Mercy Corps

After three long months, many of Pakistan’s millions of flood-displaced citizens are starting to return home. Most are happy and relieved, but all are grappling with the next phase of this devastating disaster: how to rebuild when they have nothing left.

Not that they had much to begin with. The flood survivors I’ve met are simple, impoverished people. Before the floods, they were tenant farmers living in small villages, eking out a living harvesting rice or wheat. This year, those crops have been swept away, along with their modest homes, schools, livestock and almost every possession they own.

Rebuilding their lives will be a long process, but Mercy Corps is helping them get started. This past week, we began cash-for-work programs in four villages that employ 500 men and women. With the support of USAID, we are providing participants with three weeks’ worth of fair wages to start rebuilding and repairing vital infrastructure — schools, irrigation canals, access roads — and to educate other villagers about important topics like proper hygiene.

Cash-for-work gives people the dignity of work and the benefit of quick income to purchase necessities. Lal Khatoon, age 40, is typical of cash-for-work participants. A widow with two children, Lal used to work long hours in the fields and she owned more than a dozen livestock, including buffalo, cows and sheep. All of her animals died during the floods, and the rice crop she should be harvesting is washed away.

For the past few months, Lal lived in a makeshift camp alongside a road in the nearby city of Jacobabad. She recently returned to her village of Dur Mohammed to find that her home and everything she owned was gone; she’s been sleeping outside on a simple bed ever since.

Lal’s recently regained some hope by participating in cash-for-work. Today she attended a hygiene training session where she learned basic messages and practices to keep herself, her family and her home clean. Soon she’ll start taking these messages on the road, going door to door in her village to educate other women. Her efforts will play a critical role in keeping the village healthy, plus she’ll earn income to purchase basics like food, medicines and clothing for her family.

Mercy Corps is planning to scale up cash for work to reach 22,000 people in the next few months. But we realize this is just a short-term solution; we’re also looking at longer-term interventions to boost economic recovery, like cash grants to help people restart small businesses. We’ll soon begin offering 1,000 grants of $100-400 each to help get shops, mills, tailors, cobblers, blacksmiths and other entrepreneurial endeavors back up and running.

In the village of Moulabux, I met Abdur Razzaq, age 30. Abdur has been severely deformed since a childhood bout with polio, but he’s a heck of a tailor; many of the local men are his clients. Before the flood, Abdur could whip up about three shalwar kameez in a day, earning a slim but livable 100 rupees (about US$1.15). But he lost his vital sewing machine in the floods, as well as the specialized cart that allowed him to reach his customers.

Now Abdur, who also supports his elderly father, is close to hopeless. “I need money to purchase a new sewing machine,” he explains. “I don’t know when’ll be able to do that.” That day may come sooner rather than later. Abdur doesn’t know it yet, but he’s a perfect candidate to receive a cash grant from Mercy Corps.

People like Lal and Abdur will need significant assistance, but more than a handout, they want to work and put their lives back together. Mercy Corps will stick with them in the coming days, weeks and months to ensure that they get the opportunities they crave.