Friends are sometimes surprisingly well-equipped to respond to disasters. An outstanding example was the 9.3 magnitude Sumatra–Andaman earthquake lasting nearly ten minutes on an 810-mile fault line on December 26, 2004. The earthquake caused 100-foot waves along Indian Ocean coastlines, killing at least 230,000 people in 14 countries. The world responded, Friends among them, with an estimated US$14 billion in humanitarian aid. Today the grass, trees, and birds are back, and the cities are bustling. In the decade following the earthquake, many people worked to lessen the devastation of the aftermath, with Quakers offering a uniquely significant contribution through what became the Asia West Pacific Initiative of Friends Peace Teams (FPT).
To begin with, Friends had personal relationships with people in the hardest-hit area: Aceh, the north tip of Sumatra. Aceh was in a war for independence from Indonesia following Indonesian military attacks against their leaders in the 1965 U.S.-orchestrated coup d’état. The U.S. government continued to provide significant military support to Indonesia throughout the subsequent 30-year war with Aceh. Although tsunami aid was massive, the Indonesian government directed aid to specific urban areas, such as Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, not to the many affected rural coastlines.
In 1999, Acehnese human rights activists requested Peace Brigades International (PBI) place “unarmed bodyguards” in Banda Aceh (the capital of Aceh) and Lhokseumawe (the second largest city) to accompany nonpartisan, nonviolent humanitarian workers. When both sides of a war receive funding from the United States and Europe, the presence of Americans and Europeans dramatically increases their safety. Through PBI, I was one of only a few people in the world who had trustworthy personal relationships in Aceh at that time. This network allowed me to effectively deliver significant financial aid directly into the hands of tsunami survivors.
Additionally, as Friends we spoke openly and directly to people on all sides of the war, valuing every person and speaking to the inner sense of what’s right. We accepted invitations into areas such as North and East Aceh where the tsunami had taken three kilometers of houses, livelihoods, and people off the shoreline into the ocean, but where aid workers would not go because it was considered “the heart of the war” and had no cellphone signal.
I acted from the Friends tradition that I had learned growing up in Alfred (N.Y.) Meeting: take no sides; make no enemies. Conscientious objectors to WWII, including Robert Turner, Roland Warren, and Clarence Klingensmith, founded Alfred Meeting based on a faith in direct experience of the Divine in life, present in and available to everyone. The genuineness of our respect for everyone allowed me to accomplish what others considered impossible.
Contributions—first through Alfred Meeting then later through FPT—not only built houses, equipped schools, and replaced tools for farming and fishing, but also invested in relationships with people. One village concluded it had probably been 53 years since anyone from the outside had been there, even a government official. Every contribution was personal and memorable. Framed photographs of visitors were displayed on living room walls beside wedding and family photos in Sumatra.
Lastly, we brought a practical approach. We understood that very often help does not help. Help is disrespectful when we think people are not capable themselves. They may face hard times, but they are capable. A good neighbor brings a meal or two but does not take over the house.
FPT members lived in villages or hired people from villages. We notified all factions of our movements, and they warned us of any military operations. We were respectful of all sides and protected by all sides, making it safer than driving down a busy highway in the United States. We provided water, food, medicine, and sanitary items necessary for immediate survival, but were slow to assume that purchasing other items was needed. In the evenings I worked on a personal project: hand sewing a quilt for my niece. Words cannot convey how much seeing this ordinary task affected people, helping them see us as real people, rather than as strangers or gods, and affirming the power of the simple and the ordinary.
When we asked for six dolls for a preschool, Alfred Friends and residents sewed 309 dolls! We were delivering the dolls when rogue military operations threatened thousands of villagers. We were able to contact five embassies and numerous United Nations offices and obtain unprecedented justice for the villagers. We tended children and adults, listened as villagers thought through concerns, and provided feedback as insights arose. Occasionally we paid for something that really mattered, especially if it required foreign currency, such as roof metal or bolts.
As food stabilized, we heard: “Go ahead; build me a house, but mine has been burnt down three times.” “If you build a bathroom, the military will take my home. Please don’t build a bathroom.” Then attention turned. “This,” pointing to Alfred Meeting’s letter of introduction, “do you know how to do this?” The sentence in question described my intentions: “She carries with her our faith in the Living Spirit to bring life, joy, peace, and prosperity through love, integrity, and compassionate justice among people who live in equality, integrity, simplicity, and nonviolence.” They would say, “The tsunami hit once; the war hits day after day after day. Please help us survive the war.” So we introduced the Alternatives to Violence Project training one week after the peace agreement was signed on August 15, 2005, and then extended the training to trauma resiliency, developmental play for peace, and discernment.
I will never forget the day we were discussing how to use US$330, equivalent to six months of a typical family income in the region. Someone suggested we give the remaining US$120 to the conscience movement in the United States. I stuttered, “Well, but, actually it’s hard to get the money here, and it’s meant for you. We can save it until we’re clear on how to help someone here.” They looked at me surprised, then slowly and deliberately, looking straight at me, said, “Nothing will help us more than a movement of conscience in the United States that stops the war and violence we face every day.” That has stuck with me, even haunted me, ever since.
This work of calling ourselves and each other back to a faith in the power of life, love, and integrity through direct relationships with one another takes investment and diligence.
What began as the Indonesia Initiative in 2007 expanded into the Asia West Pacific Initiative (AWPI) in 2012. AWPI seeks to connect communities of conscience around the world with communities in the Asia West Pacific to provide opportunities for conscientious service. The 35-minute film Silaturahmi: The Power of Visiting offers a powerful sense of the work of Friends Peace Teams in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Philippines, through many voices. Silaturahmi means “visiting” in Indonesian. Muslims consider visiting, without agenda as one visits family or friends, mandatory for building and maintaining spiritual community. This resonates well with a Quaker approach to peace work. Access the film at www.fpt-awp.org under the Activities tab; contact [email protected] for information on scheduling a viewing or an interview.
What began as the Indonesia Initiative in 2007 expanded into the Asia West Pacific Initiative (AWPI) in 2012. AWPI seeks to connect communities of conscience around the world with communities in the Asia West Pacific to provide opportunities for conscientious service.
The 35-minute film Silaturahmi: The Power of Visiting offers a powerful sense of the work of Friends Peace Teams in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Philippines, through many voices. Silaturahmi means “visiting” in Indonesian. Muslims consider visiting, without agenda as one visits family or friends, mandatory for building and maintaining spiritual community. This resonates well with a Quaker approach to peace work. Access the film at www.fpt-awp.org under the Activities tab; contact [email protected] for information on scheduling a viewing or an interview.