Indonesian group steps up to help typhoon victims

Mr Yusnirsyah Sirin (left), seen here with two colleagues from the ACT foundation, leaving for the Philippines last Wednesday to assess how the group can help victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

Among the many humanitarian relief organisations now helping victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines is one from Indonesia.

The ACT foundation - short for Aksi Cepat Tanggap, or "quick response action" in Bahasa Indonesia - was formed in the months after the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami that swept through much of Banda Aceh and coastal areas of Indonesia's westernmost province.

The military, neighbouring countries and international relief organisations were swift to step in and mitigate the impact of the disaster that left some 170,000 dead and over 500,000 homeless.

But the scores of Indonesian volunteers who joined them realised a few things: There was no major local group helping out, and much needed to be done to prepare for the next major disaster.

One of the volunteers was Mr Imam Akbari, 41, who visited Aceh to help in January 2005.

"Aceh made us realise we can't just go on responding to every disaster as they come," Mr Imam told The Straits Times. "Damage from disasters can be prevented."

Today, he is senior vice-president of ACT, which is one of Indonesia's most prominent humanitarian relief organisations. It has a volunteer pool of some 500,000 nationwide and a presence in countries from Myanmar to Syria.

Last Wednesday, one of its officers, Mr Yusnirsyah Sirin, left for Manila to determine how best to help and deploy contributions for victims of the typhoon.

On Monday, he was on the remote island of Bantayan, which had been badly battered, with a group of student volunteers.

"We've just been able to distribute bread, blankets and hygiene kits to some 120 displaced families. We're still trying to get a generator here, and it's hard to find clean water," Mr Yusnirsyah, 46, a former photojournalist, told The Straits Times.

Mr Imam recalled how in Aceh, he and fellow volunteers saw many foreign non-governmental organisations, but few Indonesian ones. "ACT is a local product and we want to help raise Indonesia's profile through 'humanitarian diplomacy'," he added.

Today, the foundation not only conducts workshops for local officials on disaster preparedness, but also raises funds for impoverished children and empowers victims of natural disasters. It has launched fund-raising efforts for victims of conflict in Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip, Myanmar and Syria in recent years.

ACT has also reached out to Indonesians living and working abroad, and Mr Imam was recently invited to speak to Indonesian students in Singapore. He says that though Indonesia has its fair share of people in need of help, a growing number also want to help those in dire situations abroad.

Recently, ACT began producing bread in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which faces a food shortage, and plans to build a bread factory as well as refugee shelters.

Dr Hilman Latief of the Muhammadiyah University in Yogyakarta says the growth of humanitarian groups like ACT can be attributed to the growing middle class since the 1990s, but the Aceh tsunami proved instrumental in catalysing support for such efforts.

Muslim groups also played an instrumental role, he added, as they were able to mobilise funds from tithes and donations, particularly after the 2004 tsunami.

"Many activists working in private companies as well as the government bureaucracy were also able to tap their networks to support these humanitarian projects," he told The Straits Times. ACT received 32 billion rupiah (S$3.5 million) in donations for its humanitarian fund last year, of which 27.5 billion rupiah was disbursed.

Mr Imam says one area it hopes to focus on next is tapping the local wisdom to prevent disasters, citing how older structures in Indonesia have been relatively unscathed by earthquakes because of how they were designed, with sand forming part of the base of structures, for instance.

ACT takes the same approach abroad. "We always work with local partners as they know best what they need," he added.

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