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Group’s Efforts to Help Thai Villagers Rebuild Lives After Tsunami Bear Fruit

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For Sukanya Waharak, a Thai villager in an area devastated by last December’s tsunami, a scholarship provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helps send her children to school. “My husband does not work because of mental illness, so I have to take care of our two kids. I sell food, but things are not easy after the tsunami because so many of our fishing boats were destroyed,” Waharak says. “Thanks to your projects, I can pay the school fees of 3,000 baht per term,” or about $75.

Then she starts crying. After a few seconds, she points at flowers that she cultivates.

“When I’m down, I take care of my flowers and then things look as if they would turn out fine after all,” she says, managing a smile.

Waharak was speaking to a group of JDC board members who traveled to Thailand late last month to visit projects the organization is running for tsunami victims. The JDC raised $18.5 million for tsunami relief through its emergency mailbox, contributions raised by individual federations, foundations and private donors.

Only 5 percent of Thailand’s population is Muslim, but they make up the majority in the south of the country, which was hard-hit by the catastrophe.

“Muslim suicide bombers do not represent us. We teach our children to be tolerant toward other religions. Islam wants all people in the world to be happy,” says Abdul Ghoni Mukhura, imam of the mosque in the village of Khao Thong.

Mukhura was standing at the village school as JDC board members inaugurated a computer laboratory and a playground.

It’s not clear if Mukhura knew that the JDC is a Jewish organization; like many locals, he didn’t mention the word “Jews” when talking of the JDC’s help, and the JDC doesn’t flaunt its background in its relief projects.

In any case, religious differences don’t seem to matter when it comes to relief in Thailand’s ravaged areas.

The JDC and a local non-governmental organization, the Population and Community Development Association, or PDA, have been helping villagers with various projects.

“I like to study English, but unfortunately we don’t learn that much nowadays as our teacher is very busy with other assignments,” says Arirat Wutpram, 10. “I hope I can use the new computer lab so I can learn more. Thanks for thinking about us.”

The 15 computers at the center will be used by children during the day, and can be used by adults at night.

Many local fishing villages are finding it hard to survive after the storm, which destroyed half of the fishing boats in Khao Thong. It also created drinking water problems.

“At first we wanted to help tsunami survivors around Phuket, where the damage was greatest,” says Eli Eliezri, who runs JDC’s projects in Thailand. “Then our local partner, PDA, recommended to us to go to places which are less developed and have less tourism, where the government does not invest much and there are less activities by nongovernmental organizations, so here we are. I think it was the right decision. There is a sea of things to be done.”

In addition to offering scholarships, the organization has started a village bank to lend money to fishermen who lost their boats.

In the coconut and rubber tree plantations in the village of Taling Chan, the tsunami killed a dozen villagers and destroyed one-third of the fishing boats. A pipe water system is being constructed with JDC funds that will provide drinking water for hundreds of families.

Another project is a two-day youth camp at the local school.

“The whole community is doing the work, and this is very inspiring,” says Will Recant, JDC’s associate executive vice president. “It’s not just about giving money, it’s about collaborating with a local organization which shares our values and involves the local people. I actually had expected more of a cultural divide, but I see that there are more similarities than differences between us and our partners.”

Eliezri hopes to help villagers in Bang Pat build a new mosque, as the old one is too small.

“We did it in Kosovo and it worked out beautifully,” he says. “Why not here?”

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