Compassion Arises - A note on DDM’s Humanitarian Aid to Peru’s Earthquake By: Susan Chen*
As I sat on a plane with four other colleagues en route to Lima, Peru on August 20, 2007, I kept thinking and imagining what it was like over there. I remembered when an earthquake of a similar magnitude hit Taiwan in 1999 and how it destroyed the livelihoods of many people. I also remembered the many volunteers and organizations that came to Taiwan’s aid during the aftermath; and now, it was my chance to give back and help others. I was informed that the Dharma Drum Mountain (DDM) Charity and Social Welfare Foundation was assembling a relief team to Peru, and I immediately volunteered to join as I am fluent in Spanish which might help the team’s local operations.
We finally arrived at the Pisco airport by military plane that the Taipei Economic & Cultural Office helped arrange. The roads were so badly damaged that no cars could drive through. I felt a sigh of relief seeing all the non-governmental organizations already there helping out. Looking around, I felt a sudden surge of energy and encouragement as I saw how everyone was trying to help out.
As we drove to Plaza del Alma in Pisco, my heart sank deeper and deeper. Although we arrived five days later, it seemed as though the earthquake had just hit. There was a thick blanket of dust covering the city, nearly all the buildings were damaged. There were people going through the rubble trying to find what remains of their home. We passed by a church that had collapsed during mass, in which 148 people were killed. I pictured in my head the serenity they must have felt to have died alongside their faith.
Our team set-up a mobile aid center to distribute the food that we had brought. There were three fully loaded trucks of food. Even before we were ready, there were people begging us for food and water. Their faces were completely distraught by the earthquake. I saw mothers holding their crying baby with one hand, and the other reaching out for help. I was so shocked and disheartened by what I saw. Nothing in my experiences could have prepared me for this scene. I tried to fill as many empty hands as I could, but as one hand retreated another came out. In just a matter of moments, all the food that we have brought was gone. As the crowd retreated I felt a dagger in my heart watching as they left in dismay.
I looked around and noticed there was a little girl, she could not have been any older than 10 years of age. She kept pointing at the empty plastic bags left on the truck. I knelt down and held her hands telling her that there was no more food. She then looked behind her and looked back at me and shook her head and kept pointing at the bags. I saw that she was looking at her mother who was standing at the side, she must have been too worried about hurting her baby to have come up to beg for food, so she sent her little girl.
The little girl then pointed towards the sky and said “Techo, techo”. It meant “roof” in Spanish. I soon realized what she had meant. She wanted the left over plastic bags for her roof. I felt a sudden chill behind my spine. I realized that it was only 10 degrees Celsius outside and that these people were cold and hungry. I grabbed the empty bags and gave it to her. I could not help but let the tears in my eyes fall. When the little girl saw me crying, she wanted to hand me back the bags, she thought I was sad because I gave away my bags. I said, “No, it’s for you!” I saw an innocent smile and she ran back to her mom with the empty bags.
Plastic bags, something we take for granted, something so ordinary in our daily lives that we discard it almost effortlessly; but to this little girl, it meant a roof to keep them warm. I closed my eyes as tears kept pouring down. I had to walk away.
During my days there, I saw communal kitchens set up. They all had six pots of rice and beans, but 250 hungry mouths waiting to share it. Hardly anyone could have crunched their hungers. But it was all that could have been given. On the last day, while waiting for a flight back to Lima for more supplies, there was no more food left for our team. That day, we went without eating, but I felt that it was the most satisfying meals that we ever had. Seeing those starving children, I thought, if by not eating, I could feed just one more child, then it was all worth it.
I now sit in my desk back home. I was so saddened by my experiences that I wanted to write this story. Many of us, we watch the television news, we may even have made a small contribution to the disaster relief fund. But nothing could compare to what I saw those few days. Sending many people away because we had ran out of food was so heartbreaking that I could only close my eyes; hoping that this was all a nightmare, but no, it was not a dream. We can turn off our televisions, shut the newspaper, just as I shut my eyes and these people may seem to be in another world. The truth is, these people are homeless, hungry and cold. Now, I want to open my eyes and open those of the reader, hoping to bring help to these people. We gave food to a handful of people, but an even greater number of people are still homeless and starving.
As heart breaking as my experiences were, I am nonetheless grateful for having this opportunity to give back on behalf of DDM and of Taiwan. I would also like to show my appreciation to all the NGO’s and volunteers that went to help out. My heart goes out to them. On my desk, I see DDM’s motto: “To build pure land on Earth”. Now more than ever, I take that to heart. By helping others as they have helped us, the appreciation, the purity and sincerity of their gratitude gives us hope that they, as receivers of help, will one day be givers of help when they are needed. By lending our hands when they have been lent to us in the past, we can, slowly, build a pure land on earth one step at a time.
* The author, Ms. Susan Chen, is a senior specialist of the International Relations Division, Dharma Drum Mountain Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China.