Aceh's Orphans

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Aceh orphans breaking the Ramadan fast. CC: (croaky/Flickr)

In countries along the Indian Ocean, people are remembering the deadly tsunami.  The wave roared across the region four years ago.  In Thailand, Buddhist monks perform prayers on the beach in Phuket.

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The tsunami claimed some 230,000 lives.  People around the world opened their pocketbooks to help the survivors.  Some of the most genereous donations went to children in the hardest hit region, Aceh, on the norther tip of Sumatra, in Indonesia.  But, many of Aceh's neediest children aren't tsunami victims.

At a Turkish-funded home for tsunami survivors, some girls gather in the open air dining room to chat and giggle away the afternoon.  Nearby, a girl practices music in her dorm.  This orphanage sprang up in the wake of the tsunami with three dozen girls crammed into houses.  It has since moved into a complex of neat, lemon-yellow dormitories.  The charity has promised to support the 95 girls until they get a job, or marry.

Some other post-tsunami orphanages haven't fared so well.  Supervisor Latifah Muhammad recently began working at the orphanage after her Malaysian-supported orphanage closed.  She says that the funding ceased, and the supporters moved on to other causes.  But she says for the children, this sort of short-term support is far from ideal. 

"When we take the children and make them be a family, the children need time to feel in their heart that they have family now.  But, after two years, they have to separate again, they have to join another boarding school.  This may be a little hard for them."

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, there was a tremendous outpouring of assistance.  But as time went on, some of the funds dried up.  The funds that still have dollars in hand do not always spend them in the best manner.

Aceh was in the middle of a brutal 29-year civil conflict when the tsunami struck.  A peace accord was signed eight months later, leaving some of the very young fighters bitter and bored, and wanting to seek revenge for those that took their fathers' lives.  This group falls outside of the usual parameters of those needing aid, but they are still in need of it.

In an ideal world, social worker Karen Stuart, of Doctors Without Borders: Holland, says these children would also get emotional care.  "There is a tremendous amount of depression, and a tremendous amount of anxiety.  So, if you have parents, or one parent, who is very depressed, cannot even manage their world, there is a lot of feelings of revenge going on.  So I am sure that the children pick up on that as well."

This fall, the government of Aceh started providing free tuition to all orphans, defined as "any child that has lost one or both parents."  It has also tried to persuade groups supporting tsunami survivors to cover children of the conflict, but so far it hasn't had much luck.

The Turkish orphanage proposed opening its doors to other orphans as well, not just tsunami survivors, and the funders agreed.  Now, one-fifth of their children come from conflict areas.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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