In Indonesia, small aid groups target victims big agencies might miss

MEDAN, Indonesia (CNS) — Smaller Catholic nongovernmental organizations are among the larger and more established groups responding to the tsunami disaster in Indonesia’s Aceh province. Some of the nongovernmental organizations — such as the Franciscans’ Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, an outspoken advocacy group that has lobbied for human rights in several Indonesian provinces — were well-established in Indonesia.

Others were hastily organized in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 disaster. The Medan Archdiocese, which covers Aceh province, formed a relief agency, Jarkas, Jan. 5. The Archdiocese does not have its own Caritas organization.  Jarkas’ director, Capuchin Father Benyamin Purba, said when organizers sat down at the first meeting, “we did not know where to start.” “This was beyond our capacity. We were not prepared to respond to this massive relief effort because we have no experience,” he said.

In the meantime, donations of cash and supplies poured in from Indonesian Catholics and from other Catholics in neighboring countries, which enabled Jarkas to quickly begin operations. Father Purba said Jarkas workers decided to focus on Meulaboh, a hard-hit coastal city, and on Jan. 12 the agency sent two trucks loaded with food, tents and clothing to the city. Two additional trucks were sent to Meulaboh Jan. 21. Ten days later, Father Purba flew to Simeulue Island off Sumatra’s coast to assess damage there. Caritas Germany provided Jarkas with funding to rebuild 100 houses and two schools.  Jarkas also dispatched a dozen or so seminarians to Meulaboh in late January to operate a soup kitchen on the grounds of a mosque. Several dozen bags of rice sat outside Father Purba’s office in Medan in late January, awaiting transport to Meulaboh.  “We may not be as big as the others, but we can still help,” he said.  The work of all of the smaller Catholic organizations overlap, and, on any particular day, sometimes the lines are blurred as to which organization the workers and network of volunteers are working for. Lacking the funding, manpower and clout of organizations like the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, these smaller agencies say they are filling a role by serving the victims that larger agencies sometimes miss and are solidifying the church’s presence in Aceh in its response to the disaster. Among the smaller groups are a two-person medical team consisting of U.S. Camillian Father Scott Binet of Milwaukee, Wis., and Charity Sister Leonarda Perini, a registered nurse and Italian missionary who has worked in Indonesia for more than 30 years. Father Binet is the coordinator of the Camillian Task Force (, a medical nongovernmental organization that aims to become a “Catholic Doctors Without Borders,” he said.

Working out of Banda Aceh’s Sacred Heart Parish — the only Catholic parish in Aceh province — the pair have traveled throughout the province looking for pockets of refugees in need of medical care. They also are in the process of opening a medical clinic on the parish grounds. Father Binet said he hopes that, through the Camillian Task Force, he can recruit additional medical personnel to work in Aceh. In the aftermath of the tsunamis, a volunteer advance team from Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation preceded Father Binet and Sister Perini to find refugees who had not received any medical care since the disaster. Father Binet said the Indonesian volunteers “knew where to go and knew who to ask in order to find those most desperately in need of medical care.”

On each village visit, Sister Perini makes a point to sit down and talk with refugees. She said their harrowing tales of survival and lost family members make it impossible for her to remain a detached observer. “We sit together, talk together and cry together. Yes, I am a nun; yes I am a medical professional. But I am a human being first. I cannot be the other two without being human,” she told Catholic News Service in late January.

by Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s