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By Fatima Najm

When reports surfaced from Indonesia that evangelists were using aid to convert people to Christianity, John Hopkins student Yahya Shaikh and Ryerson health services management student, Omar ha-Redeye, galvanized medical volunteers in Toronto, and headed into the heart of the Asian disaster.

“A lot of evangelist groups are unable to separate humanitarian aid from missionary work because of their agenda to convert people, so there is obviously a disconnect between altruistic aid and what they are offering,” ha-Redeye says, who returned from the camp this week. WorldHelp, a Virginia-based missionary group, had planned to airlift 300 tsunami orphans from the predominantly Muslim province of Banda Aceh to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, where they were to be placed in a Christian children’s home.

The proposal was harshly criticized by Muslim leaders, who warned of backlash against any foreigner trying to exchange food and medical supplies for conversions. WorldHelp subsequently dropped its plan. Ha-Redeye, 26, says that Muslims in the region became wary of taking aid from people they thought might be trying to convert them.

“With us,” ha-Redeye says, “it’s obvious with the women in hijaab and with (the men’s) appearance– with all this facial hair–that we are Muslim and have no agenda except to offer medical aid.”

Forming a team

The team is currently operating a clinic in Panton Labu, a rural community of 5,000 people on the isolated north coast of Indonesia’s Aceh province. It is an area that is so isolated and dangerous that few aid organizations are willing to work there. A typical day starts at dawn and will see somewhere between 50 and 80 patients.

Water is in short supply and there are signs of an imminent malaria outbreak. Despite such difficulties, ha-Redeye says the close interaction with the people in the small community fuelled the teams resolve.

“Despite the disaster, they managed to stay in high spirits,” ha-Redeye says. “These are people with immense faith who draw inspiration from the fact that despite all surrounding structures being reduced to debris, mosques all along the coast were relatively intact, sometimes completely intact.”

Getting the wheels in motion

 Shaikh was doing his master’s degree at John Hopkins when the tsunami hit Indonesia. Wanting to help, he approached professor Rashid Chotani at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Bloomberg had contacts in Aceh from previous involvement in humanitarian work there. Once Shaikh was able to assess what was needed to help in the region, he began looking for sponsors in the U.S. Unable to find any, he turned to his native Canada.

Here he had no trouble convincing Toronto mosques to donate generously to the Canadian Medical Relief Council that would be attached to the Islamic Foundation of Toronto. Ha-Redeye was now on-board. He began to canvas for medical professionals willing to sacrifice their personal time and comfort to serve a greater cause.

It took two weeks, but a team of registered nurses, doctors and a translator were assembled–eight females and five males, all Muslims. Next, the logistics of transporting the massive supply of antibiotics around the destruction of the region’s infrastructure caused by the tsunami had to be figured out.

NGOs on the ground warned that their supplies often arrived too late or disappeared altogether and rumours about drugs being seized and resold for inflated prices were rife. The team’s solution? Discard one item of personal luggage and carry the medicine in by hand.

The Rebels of Aceh

 In addition to such obstacles, the Indonesian government warned the group that Panton Labu was an isolated region with rebel activity, and that their safety could not be guaranteed. Aceh has been ravaged by a long drawn-out conflict between the Indonesian military and rebel insurgents known as the Free Aceh Movement.

The rebels are demanding a referendum on their independence but Indonesian officials are balking for fear of a result similar to that in East Timor. East Timor, a former Indonesian province, became independent two and a half years ago. In May 2003, peace talks between Aceh rebels and the government collapsed.

The military responded by launching a counter insurgency crackdown in Aceh, killing 115 people in a single month. Despite the tsunami taking 220,000 lives, fighting between government troops and the separatists appears to have accelerated over the last month, leaving another 208 dead, according to local media reports.

Staying out of the Politics

But ha-Redeye is not interested in commenting on the region’s politics. “We were cautioned about going into the area,” he says, “but we saw the devastation and saw there was something to salvage so we felt we had to go in. And so far we have not seen any sign of any rebel activity and we have had complete co-operation from the government.”

Shaikh, who is currently on site in Panton Labu, is more concerned about the availability of water and the threat of a malaria outbreak. “The initial needs assessment indicates a possible cholera and the initial stages of a Malaria outbreak in the camp,” he wrote in his report on Jan. 16. “The people in the camps are very desperate. Though our time in Aceh won’t be comfortable, we will feel an intense satisfaction at the end of each day.”

Coming home

While most of the members of the team returned home by March 1 in accordance with the United Nation’s mandate, the CMRC has been granted an extended stay due to their considerable contribution to the comunity.

Ha-Redeye says that more volunteers will be sent and their responsibilities will be expanded to include economic development.

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