Monday, March 23, 2009

Hello from Aceh!

Welcome to the blog of Building Bridges to the Future Foundation. Actually, this is more of my personal blog, because I felt that in addition to our websites and our Facebook and Twitter pages, (which will be set up shortly by more tech-savvy minds than mine), there needed to be a less formal, more personal accounting of what is happening in Aceh, where I’ve worked (and much of the time lived) since right after the tsunami in 2005. I have to confess that all this internet-based communication is quite new to me, but I’ve always been able to write letters back home to my family, consultants, and people who I’ve asked to assist me with our work in Aceh, so we all decided that a blog would be a great way to keep everyone up to date. If you’re a relative or friend, you can rest assured that Grammy’s still kicking. If you’re someone interested in humanitarian relief efforts in Aceh but don’t know where to begin to look for info, this might be the place to start. If you’re a multinational corporation or large donor, you might grow to rather adore us and decide to fund one or more of our programs.

I have to say that much of what I’ll be writing here (as opposed to what’s on our web page, newsletters, etc) is purely SUBJECTIVE, though I’m going to try and be as diplomatic as I can be here, even if I may be tearing my hair out in frustration from time to time.

This has all been a marvelous journey for me. I came to humanitarian relief via the scenic route, you might say. I’d been an investment banker all of my adult life, and had been stationed in Jakarta (the capital of Indonesia ) since 1991. Immediately after the 2004 Tsunami hit Aceh, leaving nearly 80% of the province devastated, I traveled there with a friend who was involved in building houses in villages on the east coast that had been partly destroyed. I figured, since I’m living in this country I want to see for myself the extent of the disaster that has affected it. I wanted to see the west coast, which had been the most heavily damaged, so we travelled to the village of Rumpet, in the sub-district of Lamno , which because of its topography had been hit on three sides. What I found there absolutely broke my heart. There was nothing. People were wandering AROUND through rubble, like zombies. And yet, survivors had this spirit in them still, this desire to move forward . . .and to help others, which was more moving to me than anything else. It’s this deep sense of concern for others that I witnessed time and again over the past 4 years, most recently in the village of Idi, in eastern Aceh where 198 Rohingyan refugees landed on the coast, fleeing conditions in Myanmar . This incident is one of the reasons I feel I need to keep a public daily journal of what is going on in Aceh. The people in this area are some of the poorest in the country, and while for weeks no large aid organization was forthcoming with any type of assistance for the refugees, who were starving and injured, the Achenese in this village opened their hearts and homes, giving what little they had to complete strangers, just because they needed it. Every day since then the community delivers fresh fish to the camp so the refugees have fish.

One of the first things I did back in 2005 in Rumpet was ask local leaders what people needed. Housing, they said. People needed housing. There had only been 300 houses built in that area—by the Turkish government—since the tsunami had hit. So with my own funds I hired two local men, who would become the first two members of my “team,” and together until December of 2005 we built enough houses so that the people of Rumpet were among the first in Aceh to be back in their homes. Through 2007 we finished projects that larger NGO’s left due to safety and other concerns, reclaimed crop fields, provided livestock and building materials to a number of community members, and gradually our little group grew and became a cohesive unit and positive force in the area of sustainable livelihoods in Aceh.

I’ve gotten to know some wonderful people in the development field here. When I was just a “rookie,” I received lots of information, and some good advice, which was to become a registered 501 c 3 organization so that I could apply to various governments and assistance bodes for funding instead of just, well, using my own.

So Building Bridges to the Future Foundation was born, based in New York, but with most of the activity taking place in the tough parts of Aceh (which we got a reputation for being able to serve when no one else would).

I became President of the Foundation, got an house/office in Banda, the capital city, and set up an office there. My little group of talented but not-too-organized staff became even more talented, and very organized, and we formed an Indonesian registered NGO, called Yayasan Jimbatan Masa Depan (JMD), to be the counterpart to Building Bridges to the Future.

Our progress and programs are laid out in lots of loving and professional detail on the websites ( and

But for the purposes of this blog, I want to start in the present. And the present is a mad whirl of activity, let me tell you. We’re up in Aceh Timur (east Aceh) where there is a double humanitarian crisis. While JMD has managed to wrestle some small amounts of aid from the world community (with help from many stalwart and small NGO’s on the ground there), the situation is pretty dire. After all, as anyone working with refugees knows, eventually they have to have somewhere to go—a permanent home, a livelihood, a community. At the same time, the Achenese themselves in this area are on the brink of starvation. As a matter of fact, we were developing programming for this area when the Rohingya landed on the beach in battered boats, towed ashore by Acehnese fishermen.

So this blog will hopefully be a daily or every other day update of what I’m doing, what my team is doing, what our good friends in Aceh are doing . . . and I’ll try to get a handle on this blogging thing and give you links and reading and maps and photos so that you know this place and care for it as much as I do. I’m in Aceh now but I’m on an extended visa and they’ll be booting me out on Sunday, but I’ll be back there in three weeks.

But lots can happen even from 6,000 miles away, and now that this is set up, I hope I will be adding to it regularly.

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