Faith can heal

By Sreedevi Jacob

Religion can offer solace in times of despair. Nearly 97% of the tsunami-affected population in district Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, is Christian. The church has responded by opening camps to house the homeless and is liasoning with the local administration and the NGOs to distribute relief.

The government has organized camps according to villages, locating each close to the devastated village. Yet, the reality in rural India is that most people belonging to the same religious, sub-religious, caste or ethnic group resides together in the same village (or, in more diverse regions, in the same `colony' within a village). This has resulted in division of camps along religious lines. So there are Hindu camps run by temples and Muslim camps run by the Muslim clergy. In St. Mary's High School camp, for example, all but 3 of the 257 families are Catholics. The remaining are Protestants.

Oxfam has been proactive to ensure that all the needy people receive relief from the government, irrespective of the ethnic background they belong to. Apart from church-based camps, Oxfam has distributed hygiene kits to residents of Muslim Jamat camp and two Hindu camps. "Sometimes the relief operations suffer because religious leaders think of only `their' people," says an Oxfam staff member managing the relief operations in the district. "However, the religious leaders have really come out in support of the people."

Oxfam's response in the district has been fortified by its allies - former and current partner organizations who have sent in experienced staff to not only handle relief operations but also reach out to the traumatised survivors. Thengaswami has come from the Convenant Centre for Development (CCD), a team of professional trained social workers based in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and adept at community mobilization. CCD is Oxfam's partner in its livelihoods programme. A four-member team is here from the Ahmedabad-based St Xavier's Social Service Society which had earlier worked with Oxfam during the Gujarat earthquake and the communal riots. The team is headed by Father Moses and brings with it rich experiences of psychosocial care among the disaster-affected.

"The situation here was little different from other places," says Father Moses. "The camp leaders - mostly the priests - had to be convinced first, before we could organise our relief distribution." He and the other three members of his team implemented the `family card' system. This card was the first proof of identity for the affected people who had lost all their identification papers to the angry sea.

The family card is a record of information about each family in the camps where Oxfam distributes relief. It has the names and address of each of the family members, details of people who have lost lives, those who have been otherwise affected by the disaster, the livelihood equipment affected and the relief measures received. Each relief item handed out by Oxfam is also recorded on this card. "Oxfam has been the most organized NGO in distributing relief," says Father Stanly, in-charge of the St. Mary's High School camp.

Sister Rose, another member of the St Xavier's Social Service Society, led the psychosocial counselling intervention in the camps. "Initially, people would just look at me, even as I talked on. The ice has broken gradually and increasingly everyone wants to express what they have bottled up for days together,'' says Sister Rose in her soft voice. "The incident is far from over, especially for women and children. The most affected people are those who saw their children being taken away by the sea. We talk mainly to the women. We try to convince them that there is a life ahead and that the human `will' can never be surrendered. We have also invented a few games to help remove the fear of tsunami from the minds of the children here."

The psycho-social care has emboldened many a woman to face life afresh. Many of them had earlier worked as fish venders, selling the fish that their husbands brought ashore. Today, they are clueless on how to continue life. The counselling seems to have helped them. "After listening to Sister Rose we have got new energy," says Veronica, who lost her husband to the mighty waves. "Probably with some training, we can take up a few occupations to keep the fire burning in our houses. The fact that she prays to the same God as we do, made us all feel comfortable and break barriers."

The Ahmedabad team's experience reiterates the fact that relating to people's cultural and religious sentiments can indeed be a constructive tool to help people overcome the effects of the disaster, regain their hope and face life afresh.

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