Year of Asian Rebuilding

POWAY, Calif. — The Asian tsunami slammed the coast of India on Dec. 26, 2004, leaving more than 10,000 dead and 150,000 homeless.

Yet over the last year, the killer wave has yielded a surprising gift: hope and empowerment for many of the country’s poor.

In November, Alex Kodiath, of Poway, Calif., traveled the coast of Kerala in southwest India. As he visited fishing villages, he saw families who continue to live in huts with inadequate roofs and walls. But he reported that hundreds of new homes have since been constructed of concrete rather than thatched with coconut leaves across bamboo poles. Fiberglass boats have replaced unwieldy catamarans, logs lashed together. Families and villages, formerly dependent solely on the fishing industry, now have new vocational skills, such as computer literacy.

Kodiath, a Catholic born in India, flew to India on Christmas Day, 2004. He carried funds targeted for expansion of the Thomas Memorial Medical Clinic, which he founded for the underprivileged in his home town of Kottapuram about 15 miles inland.

More important than the homes and boats, says Kodiath, is the fact that the government has a new “transparency and accountability.” Villagers, once exploited by a complex system of political parties and social injustices have formed community groups.

“These grassroots organizations have helped the poor advocate for themselves and their neighbors,” to achieve financial stability, Kodiath said.

Kodiath is president of Samarpan, a family-run charity he and his American wife, Mary, founded in 1989. It is operated from their California home. Samarpan, a Sanskrit word meaning “unconditional giving,” provided emergency financial assistance to tsunami victims within 24 hours of the wave’s striking shores all over southern Asia. Samarpan continues to fill voids not being met by the government or non-governmental agencies.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Kodiath traveled to India with his wife and daughter, Pria. It was Kodiath’s third trip since last December. He checked on the current needs of tsunami victims and attended the blessing of a much-needed addition to the Thomas Memorial Medical Clinic.

Each time Kodiath visits India, he searches for those who are not receiving needed aid or services. While Samarpan as a small charity can only assist a few, Kodiath feels a responsibility to take action.

For example, there’s Ali, a Muslim man who is so poor he doesn’t have a last name. As he traveled 50 miles of coastline in December 2004, quietly assisting tsunami victims, Kodiath discovered Ali sitting on a downed coconut palm, crying. The man had lost his livelihood when the contents of his meager store were washed out to sea. Kodiath sent a truck three days later with goods to restock the entire store.

There’s also Sathyian, a Hindu, who is also without a last name. During a trip last August, Kodiath discovered the man needed assistance to complete construction of his home. Samarpan helped. And on his latest trip, Kodiath and his wife decided to help a family whose coconut-leaf roof was leaking. Their 8-year-old son recently had heart surgery. Samarpan financed the repair.

Increasing Costs

For three months after the tsunami, Samarpan provided weekly supplies of rice, beans, cooking oil and flour to 500 families. The charity also built 15 temporary shelters, and restored nine small businesses.

Samarpan’s accomplishments, though small in number, are significant. Those assisted might have otherwise slipped through the cracks due to complex governmental regulations, or living in an under-served area.

Kodiath is proud of the medical care provided through Samarpan’s clinic to the poor and to tsunami victims. Over the last year, the cost of medicine has gone from $800 a month to $1,500 a month. Treating an expanding number of patients has required hiring a third doctor. Kodiath stated that the payroll of the clinic staff is the sole overhead expense incurred by Samarpan. Administrative costs, including airfare, are donated.

Samarpan does no active fund-raising.

“People learn about it through word of mouth or talks I give to churches and professional organizations,” Kodiath said. “People like to give because 100% of the money received is used for its intended purpose.”

The week after the tsunami, Sister of St. Joseph of Orange Patricia Hanson and Victory Noll Sister Millicent Peaslee, co-directors of La Providencia Retreat Center in Alpine, Calif., raised $9,000 for Samarpan through Queen of Angels Church in Alpine, their home parish. The nuns have been friends with the Kodiaths for more than 20 years.

“They and their two teen-aged children are leaders,” Sister Hanson said. “They are a compassionate and intelligent family and dedicated to helping people of all cultures.”

Other Helpers

The majority of tsunami rebuilding and livelihood restoration has come from the government working in coordination with philanthropic organizations and multiple non-governmental organizations such as Caritas and Catholic Relief Services.

“We believe that the government is the front player during times of national disasters,” said Father Varghese Mattamana, assistant executive director of Caritas India, a branch of Caritas Internationalis, one of the world’s largest humanitarian agencies. Caritas joined Catholic Relief Services in the early days following the tsunami to coordinate efforts.

“The joint effort has worked quite well,” said Marc D’Silva, India representative of the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services, “and it is a model we’ll be using in the future.” D’Silva said his organization has the funds needed for tsunami response thanks to the “generous outpouring” from American dioceses.

There are “about a couple dozen non-governmental organizations responding to the needs of tsunami-affected communities,” said D’Silva. Yet their accomplishments are substantial. In Kerala, Kodiath’s home state, 750 homes were expected to be completed by Christmas. In the hardest-hit state, Tamilnadu, “we’re hoping to have 10,000 homes completed by April/May 2006.”

The most important accomplishment of Caritas and Catholic Relief Services is moving India forward.

“We’re not looking to bring the community back to the status quo before the tsunami because many times there were structural injustices sometimes based on caste difference,” said D’Silva. “We are trying to address those … inequities to have a better balance of … assets across families and villages. We took this as an opportunity to improve the situation for the poorest of the poor.”

Gerilyn Herold writes

from Alpine, California.