MEUANG MAI, Thailand (Jun. 21)
Meuang Mai, a small fishing village on the island of Kho Khao in southern Thailand, is a lucky village. Its 16 houses and all of its fishing boats were obliterated in the Dec. 26 tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia, but no one from the village was killed, and no one was even hurt: Fishermen saw the wave coming and ran with their families to the hills.
Six months after the disaster, however, those “lucky” ones still live the trauma every day and miss their old village. The government built them temporary homes and Switzerland donated new fishing boats, but Meuang Mai is a sad place.
“It’s amazing how much money the world has given, yet the villagers hardly see any of it,” says Israeli Yariv (Robbie) Rozen, 31, who has been a volunteer here since the tsunami struck. “After coming so many times to enjoy the beaches of Thailand, I wanted to give something back to this country in a time of crisis.”
After frustrating experiences with the bureaucracy of big organizations, Rozen decided to be an independent volunteer.
“Here I can think of a project, budget and schedule, send e-mails to potential donors and implement it without having to deal with regional managers or country directors,” says Rozen, a former paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces. “In big organizations, by the time the people get water, say, they don’t need it anymore, they need food.”
He now is busy building toilets with the villagers and a few kids.
Not far from where they’re working stands “Robbie’s Villa,” according to a sign on a small wooden hut built on stilts. Rozen moved in a few days ago after the tent he was living in blew away in a storm.
Rozen “doesn’t speak much Thai, but we understand each other quite well,” says Chalern Rasidi, who together with his wife, Arunee, has “adopted” Rozen.
“He has been helping us so much. We love him dearly,” Rasidi says. “He bought us water tanks, fridges, everything we needed. Everybody loves him, kids, women, men.”
“At first we weren’t sure who he was; we thought he was a traveler,” Arunee Rasidi says. “Now he’s very close to all of the families in the village.”
Rozen is the only “farang,” a Thai term for a Westerner, in Meuang Mai. Most of the money he raised for the village comes from the United States.
After two months in Meuang Mai he brought over Pamela Pompeo from New Jersey, who is involved with charity projects and came to Thailand to help tsunami survivors.
“She immediately fell in love with the people, and after a few weeks she asked me to join her to raise funds in the United States,” Rozen says. “We got more than $8,000 for this village only, and a donation from the Chabad movement in Bangkok.
“This is big money here,” he continues — especially considering that many villagers lost their income in the tsunami, and the Thai government gives every villager only $40 a month in aid. “We were able to buy 17 water tanks and refrigerators for all the families.”
Six months after the tsunami, nobody in Meuang Mai lives by the water anymore, where the wrecks of boats still lie.
“People are afraid. That’s why the new houses they got from the government are away from the sea,” Rozen says, hugging three kids and showing them photos on his laptop.
Rozen’s “office” is a few yards from the center of the rebuilt village, where the television is and where everyone hangs out. It doesn’t exactly look like an office — it’s a piece of land with some bush — but it’s the only spot in Meuang Mai where there sometimes is mobile phone reception, allowing Rozen to field calls from the various people who fund his projects.
“I can’t hear you, can you hear me?” he shouts into the phone.
Rozen plans to go back to Israel in another month.
“I feel it’s time to leave,” he says. “But I will definitely finish my projects: The bathrooms will be ready, we’re going to have roof extensions so the rain will not come into the houses and we’ll create a system to use rainwater.
“In most of the world, the tsunami is just not interesting anymore,” he acknowledges. “Everybody is sure so much help has been given. But from Meuang Mai I can tell you: The help doesn’t get to the people. It stops somewhere on the way. I promised to my friends here I would come back and make sure they keep going forward.”