I received a lovely write-up in the New York Times yesterday:
A Volunteer Sticks With Aceh By PETER GELLING
Published: January 18, 2010
LAMTUI, INDONESIA — When Muhammad Ali Ar first met Sara Henderson, he was in a state of shock. He had been recently torn from his family by a mighty flood of water and swept kilometers away to a strange, ruined village on Aceh’s western coast.
“I was completely traumatized. Everything was gone. I could only think about where my family was,” he said.
He would later learn that a tsunami, triggered by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, had devastated much of Aceh, Indonesia’s northernmost province, killing about 170,000 people there, including Mr. Ali’s entire family.
“It was too hard to be alone with my thoughts,” Mr. Ali, 47, who had been a deputy village chief before the disaster, said recently outside a newly constructed house in this village. “I felt that I needed to work to keep my mind occupied, but there was no work anymore.”
On the other side of the world, Sara Henderson, now 68, had just celebrated Christmas in New York City with her four children and nine grandchildren.
She had been living in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, for more than a decade before the tsunami, first as a banker, then as a retiree.
Her unlikely path — from one of the few women in management at the regional New York bank Marine Midland to senior vice president at NatWest in Hong Kong and then Ecoban in Jakarta — would eventually lead her to the remote western coast of Aceh, one of the most devastated areas, and then on to some of the most isolated villages in all of Indonesia, many of them ravaged by a 30-year civil war.
“I never thought I’d be doing anything like this,” she said.
When she returned to Jakarta after Christmas, an Indonesian friend asked her to go to Aceh to see whether she might be able to help. Thinking she would be there for no more than a few days, Ms. Henderson agreed.
“It was not a pretty sight,” she recalled. “When you got down into the more isolated areas, there were tents in the mud, and there were people walking around with these dead eyes. It was heartbreaking.
“But what made me want to help most of all was that they were still walking around. I thought to myself, if I had lost just one child, let alone all my children and all my grandchildren, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. I couldn’t live. I was amazed at their resiliency. Someone had to help them.”
The same drive that led her to first take a job in Asia so long ago has now turned this Brooklyn-born banker into one of Aceh’s longest-serving aid workers.
“It shows what a nut case I am. I mean, when I first started building houses I had to pay contractors, but there were no banks in Aceh, and there was still the war. I’d have to stuff the equivalent of $30,000 under the driver’s seat, while passing through 32 military checkpoints as we went through GAM country,” she said, using the Indonesian acronym for the separatist rebels.
Another six months would pass before a peace agreement was signed between Jakarta and the rebels, ending almost three decades of civil war and allowing the free movement of aid around the province. During that time, Ms. Henderson would drive 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, or more nearly every day on a broken, sometimes nonexistent road. Sometimes she would board a rickety boat for hours to reach villages where she, and often only she, was working.
“We work in very isolated places. It isn’t sexy,” she said. “But someone has to do it. You can’t write these people off because they live in the wrong area. A lot of the discontent is in those areas.”
Five years later, the organization she founded to help tsunami victims, Building Bridges to the Future Foundation, is one of the few international aid groups still working in the province. With reconstruction largely finished, most of the others have left.
“It is no surprise that Sara is still working in Aceh,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who headed the central government’s Aceh Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency for four years. “She has such a commitment to the Acehnese people, and I know she feels that the work in Aceh is far from finished.”
It was Ms. Henderson who first hired Mr. Ali, giving him the work he needed to distract him from all that he had just lost. Together with an economics lecturer named Muslim Djalil, who took a year and a half leave from his university to help Ms. Henderson, they built 51 houses in the village of Rumpet, using Ms. Henderson’s own money.
Mr. Ali is now remarried, with two children and a new house.
“Sara is like a mother to me,” he said. “I couldn’t be in this situation today without her. And that’s true for a lot of people. I pray every day for her safety.”
Ms. Henderson says she travels to New York several times a year, because if she didn’t her children would “kill her.” But she adds that she often feels bored in New York and yearns to return to Aceh.
“Sometimes I’ll take my children out to dinner, and I’ll start thinking about how much this amount of money could do for the people in Aceh,” she said. “It’s hard for me to be away sometimes.”
So Ms. Henderson and her foundation press on. She has now focused on creating sustainable livelihoods in a province that is suffering from high rates of unemployment. In Lamtui, she has trained villagers to manage a small goat dairy, the first in Aceh.
“All of Sara’s work has been amazing, but I think her work in conflict-affected areas really stands out because she is working in very remote villages, some only accessible via five-hour boat rides, where no other NGO is present,” said Lillianne Fan, donor liaison to Aceh’s provincial government for the United Nations Development Program.
Ms. Henderson also built the province’s first women’s center at the request of Mr. Kuntoro, of the Aceh Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency, and has established small schools that teach former separatist combatants reading, writing and other skills in each of the roughly 30 villages where she has worked.
The list goes on. She took over Oxfam’s water purification program when the aid group pulled out of West Aceh in 2006. Last year her foundation helped provide aid to the nearly 200 Muslim Rohingya refugees who landed in East Aceh after fleeing Myanmar.
“When I talk about all this, it feels like it isn’t me, like I am talking about another person,” she said. “I guess because I never thought I could do something like this.
“I am not the same person I was five years ago, and in some ways, I feel that I wish I had gotten into this earlier,” she said. “I mean, my doctor said to me the other day that 70 today is like the 40 of 10 years ago. I feel that 40 is a little old for me. There are days when I feel 20.”