She is only 25 years old, but Umi Alfiyah is already a veteran of major disasters. As a former volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), and now as a staff member, she responded after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, the 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta, and now, the earthquake in West Sumatra . Photo: Kathy Mueller
Yesterday morning Friday 23 Oct, I went for my first morning walk in 24 days. I felt like a school boy stealing from the teachers drawer. As guilty as sin. Should I not be writing appeals for help, negotiating for more helicopters and volunteers ? No, my body and brain need a rest.My legs were stiff and my back aching from sitting in front of a screen, jumping in and out of helicopters and walking across the uneven surface of landslides. It was the first time I have done something for myself. As I walked I thought of all those selfless people I have worked with since 30 September. Pak Irman head of the PMI operation whose grand daughter used to phone daily from Jakarta begging him to come back. Wayne our ops manager whose been working 24/7 handling a complex operation. Kathy Mueller from the Canadian Red Cross who has been out there daily listening and recording the stories of affected families, volunteers and staff. her latest article I paste below. Matteo from the Italian Red Cross who came with his team and erected 3 base camps for 200 volunteers so they could get some rest and a shower after attending to the dead with dignity, administering first aid, distributing relief items, counselling grieving children and reuniting families. Vera, Putu, Qasim. Jamie. Ian, Amara who work for me and John and Tucky the helicopter pilots. The list goes on and on. Their stories need to be told. Umi in one of my many PMI heroes.
She is only 25 years old, but Umi Alfiyah is already a veteran of major disasters. As a former volunteer with the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), and now as a staff member, she responded after the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, the 2006 earthquake in Yogyakarta, and now, the earthquake in West Sumatra. When disaster strikes, it’s her job to reconnect people who have lost contact.
“We have had around 40 phone calls from people outside West Sumatra who haven’t been able to reach their families in Padang and Pariaman. People are scared. They don’t know what’s happened to their relatives,” she says.
Alfi, as she prefers to be called, is heading up the Restoring Family Links (RFL) unit as part of PMI’s emergency response to the earthquake. Their efforts to help people find each other include the launching of a national hotline. Friends and family across the country and overseas can call to learn the whereabouts of their loved ones. They will also take satellite phones into the more remote areas where cell phone service may not be reliable.
Kathy Mueller at work: Photo: Bob McKerrow
When a call does come in, Alfi and her team head out to visit the missing person’s last known address. They will keep visiting until the person is located.
“We had one call from a man in Jakarta,” says Alfi. “He hadn’t been able to reach his brother in Padang City. He had been calling and calling for days but there wasn’t any answer. We took down as much detail as we could and then visited the brother’s house.
“He was there, but hadn’t been able to call out. We gave him a mobile phone and the two brothers talked. It was very emotional. They were both crying. Four days is a long time not to know if your brother is alive.”
It reconfirms that for most people, insecurity is the worst situation to be in. Survivors of a disaster can better handle grief, losses and rebuilding their lives, once they know what has happened and what their options are.
Despite the challenges of working in a disaster zone, Alfi does not entertain any thoughts of giving it up. “It can be upsetting because a lot of people are buried under landslides and collapsed houses. We don’t always have good news for people. But I really enjoy the job, especially when we do reunite families. Other PMI programmes provide material goods. We look after people’s emotional needs. We find their family.”
Alfi has been coordinator of the RFL unit for the past three years, but her connection to PMI began years earlier in high school. During the big earthquake in Yogyakarta in 2006, her own house was damaged, yet she still came straight into work.
“We had more than 200 requests to find family members. We also worked with the government to help with the identification of bodies. It was a very emotional time, but it really showed how valuable a service this is. I have been with the Red Cross for so long now, I can’t imagine working anywhere else.” Thanks to Kathy Mueller of the Canadian Red Cross who wrote this article.