Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Flood Concerns Continue in Dakotas

A home in Minot, North Dakota, is overwhelmed by floodwaters from the Souris, or Mouse, River.
Photo: Courtesy of ND Dept. of Emergency Management

By Rev. Lee Gale

In my capacity as disaster response coordinator covering North Dakota for the Dakotas Annual Conference, I went to Bismarck, the capital, and nearby Mandan this week to see what the mighty Missouri River is capable of. Both the Missouri and the Souris, or Mouse, River are swollen with rainwater and melting snowpack, as they overrun their banks and cause massive flooding.

I learned that the pressure from the release from Garrison Dam has deepened the channel, and the Missouri’s current is very strong. Also, the river is changing its course, which may put more property at risk. There is a large area of Bismarck that has the potential for flooding should the dikes break.

Bismarck is now a city of contrast. In one section, floodwaters lap against homes, causing a great deal of concern on the part of the homeowner, while a few blocks away, another person’s greatest worry may be how low to cut the grass. It's a definite contrast in the same city. This year’s flooding will be a long-term issue for Bismarck/Mandan as it will be, also, for the communities down river.

On the Souris River, the town of Minot is seeing flooding it hasn't seen since 1889. Right now there are some 600 homes that will most likely need to be destroyed, as the high water level in them will remain way too long for them to be structurally saved. The water is slowly going down, but the possibilities of additional rain in the area and in Canada upstream continue to cause great concern.

The Dakotas Conference is partnering with other organizations to prepare for cleanup when that time comes. I have contacted UMCOR to put out a call for Early Response Teams that may be able to bless us with their volunteers when the green light is given to enter these areas. Any team that is interested can please call our Conference Office at 605-996-6552. We will compile the necessary information so that those willing to come to North Dakota may be contacted on a timely basis.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Supplies of Hope

Mery Davituri and her fourth-month-old baby, who reside at Tserovani IDP settlement, register to receive a two-month supply of baby formula.
Photo: Judith Santiago

At the Tserovani settlement of internally displaced persons (IDP) in the Kartli region of the Republic of Georgia, Mery Davituri and her four-month-old baby stand in line to register to receive a two-month supply of baby formula. The formula, provided by the US Department of State, with distribution and logistics managed by UMCOR, helps mothers like Mery provide their children with the nourishment they need until mothers can breast feed again.

Most mothers, following the South Ossetia conflict along Georgia's border with Russia, were unable to lactate due to stress incurred in the war. UMCOR has been distributing baby formula to more than 30 regions throughout the Republic of Georgia since that time.

Mery is one of 7,000 people who live in the Tserovani settlement who cannot afford to purchase baby formula on their own. Today, some 160 families are receiving some relief along with a brief consultation with Ludmila Lomia, a nutritionist contracted by UMCOR.

Lomia instructs the mothers to use the food they are about to receive as a supplement, and strongly encourages lactation through breastfeeding. She tells the mothers to introduce cow’s milk to the baby after they turn one year old, and speaks to them about mixed feeding—the use of supplements together with breastfeeding.

Tamuna Kokhsaidze, who has two children, 3 and 9 months old, shares, “I still have trouble breastfeeding, but I am happy and thankful for this program. I can’t imagine what I would do without it.”

Dali Koraeri from South Ossetia proudly shares with UMCOR that she married a Georgian after the conflict. Together they have one child. Most of the people in Tserovani settlement are originally from South Ossetia, and the subject of this war is still a sensitive issue that most choose not to discuss.

Later, we traveled to Bazeleti IDP Ambulatory, an out-patient clinic constructed in 2010 with funding from the US Department of State and UMCOR. The clinic serves more than 400 people and includes a small educational area for young children. Today, about 165 families receive UMCOR hygiene kits.

It is like a distribution of hope, and many hearts are encouraged and eyes light up when they are reminded that they are not forgotten.

Tomorrow, I travel back to the Georgian border and on to Armenia for a few more site visits, before heading home to the United States in a few days. The days have been long, but it has been an invaluable experience to see UMCOR at work in the lives of so many people.

*Judith Santiago is media communications associate for UMCOR.

Monday, June 27, 2011

When the Music Fades

Doctor Tamila Silagadze, who distributes medicine for UMCOR, apportions the much-needed medicines that arrive at the clinic four times a year.

Photo: Judith Santiago

Today I visited the Patriarchy Policlinic in Tblisi, in the Republic of Georgia, which has been operating since 1995. The clinic distributes basic medicines to the elderly, single mothers, and internally displaced people who come to seek relief from various ailments. In 1994, the Gregorian Orthodox Church allocated the room space for its operation.

Every quarter, a shipment of medicines arrives from UMCOR funding partner IMA (Interchurch Medical Assistance).  Doctor Tamila Silagadze, who distributes medicine for UMCOR, works quickly to assess the patients' needs and then apportions the necessary medicine, which can include pain killers, high blood pressure tablets, vitamin supplements, hygiene kits, and cardiovascular and allergy medications.  Most of the people who arrive at the Patriarchy Policlinic suffer from hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular and joint diseases.

Dr. Silagadze has to use wisdom in distributing medicines. She sees an average of 140 patients a month, and the quarterly distribution of medicines has to last until the next shipment.  There have been times, she says, that the clinic has run out of medicine, and she has had to turn patients away.  I saw how this breaks her heart.

I met Crocha Mairsara, 48, who just received medicine to treat his hypertension.  He says the medicine helps and he notices a difference in his health.  Crocha is married and has one son.  A veteran of the war, he bitterly describes how the war was thoughtless and only served political ambitions at the expense of countless people who lost everything.  Later, I asked him to take us to a nearby internally displaced persons (IDP) settlement, where I witnessed for myself the deplorable conditions that many women, children, and men are living under.

Vladime Devnosadre, 74, has problems with his eyesight and difficultly with his joints, but the medicines provided here will not ease much of Vladime’s condition.  He, like the other patients in the room, live on a small pension and cannot afford the in-patient care at the hospital.  Vladime says that the pharmacies are too expensive. Dr. Silagadze herself gets frustrated when the needs of the patients outweigh the limited available medicines, and yet the patients are very grateful to UMCOR and IMA for what they can receive.

Later in the afternoon, we visited a Tblisi IDP settlement where festivities were taking place in celebration of the arrival and distribution of UMCOR hygiene kits for 400 vulnerable families.  A musical band was playing traditional Gregorian music, and the children danced, clapped and rejoiced.  Many were dressed in their best clothes.  The scene temporarily masked the real conditions in which these families live.

When the kit distribution began, the children barged through the doorway of the very small room which housed the UMCOR boxes of relief supplies.  Each child made sure she or he got a kit. It was a blessing to see the smiles and excitement on their faces.

The Chairman of Abkhazia Parliament in Exile, George Gvazava, was sort of the “master of ceremonies” of the event.  He invited George Gedevanishvili, head of mission for UMCOR Georgia, and me to a table full of sweets, vegetables, breads, cake, fruit, and more.  After several toasts, I was warmed by the Georgian culture.  They spend hours at a table toasting one another in honor and respect of what that person brings to ones’ life and community.  UMCOR was honored that day, but as the toasts and conversations continued, the sounds of children playing rang in the background.  I couldn’t help but run back out to be with the children and the other families.  After all, that was the reason why we were here. I took pictures, laughed with the children, held them, and told them they would be in my prayers.

One woman shared her life with me. She looked tired and wearied and seemingly lost all hope.  There was no translator with me, but I did not need one.  I held her and assured her of my prayers.  I felt the helplessness and wondered what a normal day was for them, or for those who received medicines earlier in the day.  I pondered their day when the music fades.   When the medicine runs out, or after the thrill of receiving a new kit dissipates, what then?   How long do they wait for another bit of relief to come their way.  I breathed and was assured that God has not forgotten these lives, in fact, He was showing me what He knew all along.  So, when the music fades, pray.

On Monday, June 27, we travel to Tserovani IDP settlement in Kartli region for a baby food distribution; then in the afternoon, we travel to Bazaleti IDP Ambulatory and Daycare, which is part of a small reconstruction project.

*Judith Santiago is the media communications associate for UMCOR.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Seeing the Hope in UMCOR

Jorik Papayan lives in peace these days at the Narek Elderly Home. He collects fresh flowers from the field and gives them away to other residents.
Photo: Judith Santiago

Today I visited the Narek Elderly Home in Abovyan City, Kotayk Marz. It’s a center for the homeless or displaced who have no immediate family members to care for them. The residents are mostly refugees who fled the countryside because of the war. UMCOR supports its cheese program, provides relief supplies, and through partner Foods Resource Bank, provides cows, chickens, and beehives to help support the dietary needs of those residing at the center.

Shoger Mikaelyan, who runs Narek Elderly Home with her husband Fridon, says that she is very grateful to UMCOR because without its support the center would not survive. She acknowledged that Narek is living at the expense of UMCOR.

I met briefly the first resident of Narek. His name is Jorik Papyan, 79 years old. Shoger says she found him picking through trash to find food. When she offered him money and he reached out to receive her generosity, she noticed that Jorik could not see. At the time, Jorik was living with his brother-in law after the death of his beloved mother, whom he witnessed getting beaten to death during the war. But Jorik himself was brutally mistreated and starved by his brother-in law. When Shoger learned Jorik’s story, she took him in and made sure he received medical attention. Later, an operation would give him better eyesight. Today, he spends his days gathering flowers from the field and giving them all away.
While she related Jorik’s story, a resident danced outside. The center has become a home and a family in which the elderly can share their stories and live out the rest of their lives.

Fridon and Shoger run the elderly home mostly on their own, but have additional support from their daughter-in law, Arevik, and their grandson, Narek. Working with special-needs and bedridden residents, it’s a wonder how Shoger and her husband manage to stay on top of things. When I asked her how she does it, she replied, “It’s something in our blood, or maybe I got it from my sister who cared for other people.” Whatever the reason for the passion behind her work, she says, it gives her peace.
Afterwards, we drove to Semyonovka village to meet with a few Foods Resource Bank beneficiary families, who have received training and either sheep, chickens, or beehives. Twenty-four families were identified as the most vulnerable in this village. The head of the municipality, whose first name is David, relayed to us that he had a difficult time narrowing the number down to 24 families when so many others needed assistance.

Karina, has five daughters, two grandchildren and a husband who cannot walk because of a war injury. She relies on the chickens provided to her that produce approximately 10 eggs per day. With no access to water, she must walk many kilometers four times a day to obtain enough water to prepare food, wash clothes and bathe. One of her daughters offered to milk her neighbor’s cows in order to earn some money for the family.

One woman, named Mazus, saw the UMCOR van and ran to Karina’s house thinking that another UMCOR training was taking place. We all laughed together. She shared her gratitude for UMCOR’s support and looks forward to the multiplication of her livestock next year.

Since the start of my journey with survivors of trafficking to today’s elderly home visit there is not one need that can be passed over. The needs are great and they are everywhere. It has been a privilege to meet with UMCOR beneficiaries on many levels and assess their needs for survival. UMCOR is greatly respected everywhere we have visited. I saw how UMCOR was a beacon for those who have received so little in life and how a simple sewing kit can turn sorrow into hope. Maintaining the level of service UMCOR provides comes with great responsibility, compassion, and generous, faithful giving to serve the most vulnerable. As United Methodists and people of God we must do more and do all that we can corporately and individually, so that one day we may hear these words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Tonight, I am in Tblisi, Georgia, and on June 24 I will visit in the Patriarch Policlinic and later a settlement of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Tblisi where UMCOR has provided relief supplies.

*Judith Santiago is the Media Communications Associate for UMCOR.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Precious in God's Sight

Ruzan Avagyan, head of Gyumri Children’s House, stands outside the fully equipped playground and expresses gratitude for UMCOR’s longstanding partnership and support.
Photo: Judith Santiago

“After putting His hands on them, He went on from them.” (Mathew 19:15)

Anahit Gasparyan, coordinator of UMCOR’s Nutrition Department in Armenia, led the days’ activities which included two home visits to survivors of trafficking, and a visit to Gyumri City, where UMCOR and the US Department of State support a cheese distribution program to a special-needs orphanage. Today, I will focus on my experience at the orphanage.

After a few hours of driving, and nearing Gyumri, you can see the aftereffects of a devastating earthquake which took the lives of some 20,000 people in 1988, according to Gasparyan.  To this day, people live in makeshift shelters of tin, with no bathrooms or running water.  Once known for its industrial capacity, textile business, and food industry services, Gyumri now faces high unemployment, with only a fraction of shops open for business.

We arrived at the orphanage and met with Ruzan Avagyan, head of Gyumri Children’s House.  She invited us in for coffee and sweets, as she discussed the history of the orphanage.  Later, Gasparyan, Izbella Simonyan, shelter manager for UMCOR’s Anti – Human Trafficking Program, and I joined Avagyan for a tour of the orphanage.  We were not allowed to take photos and when I met these children, I understood why. 

Many of the children were left behind by parents unable to support their child’s physical or emotional disabilities, or who could not handle the shame and social hardships associated with raising a special-needs child.  These children had facial deformities, lost limbs, Down ’s syndrome, nervous disorders, and lost sight.

As we entered one room where the older children (3 - 4 years of age) resided, the children greeted us with a song.  One lovely girl who had no hands and unusually large, light brown eyes caught my attention.  As she sang with a smile, I bent down to greet her, held her wrist, and gave her a long warm embrace.  Actually, I held her a few times. There was just something about her…

One boy observed my every move and then bursted out laughing. He was so funny that I joined him in laughter.  Another child began to cry, while yet another sat quietly watching.  One young boy just wanted to stay close to me. He kept touching me and reaching for my camera case which hung over my neck.   One boy, who lost his eyesight, just kept on singing while the other children focused on us.  He was the strong one, the independent one, who continued to sing and did not need assistance when we went down the stairs.

We also visited a “baby ward” that had about 16 beds.  We held and touched babies.  I prayed as I laid hands on them.  I witnessed the healing power of touch that stopped a child from crying, turned the gaze of a child to something new, and saw the emotionally starved eat from every touch and every glance.   I did not expect the impact this visit would have on me.  I was greatly burdened for these children, while at the same time, I realized how precious they are in the sight of God.  I did not want to leave them. I wanted to give them every ounce of love I could pour out. My arms and heart were open very wide.  But for now, I did what Jesus did – I placed my hands on them before going on my way.

The orphanage currently serves 130 children with only a handful of nurse assistants to care for their physical and emotional needs. They are by far short-staffed, but, they say, they would not trade in their jobs for the world. 

The orphanage is also highly dependent on in-kind contributions such as layette and hygiene kits that arrive from UMCOR’s Relief-Supply Network. UMCOR provides about 42 kilos of cheese per month — 20 grams of cheese each day — to help fortify their diets.

The orphanage is one of eight state-run institutions that UMCOR is supporting country-wide. The organization procures locally made cheese from producers and allocates the cheese to the elderly, boarding schools, special needs schools, retirement centers, and mental hospitals, with the goal to improve nutrition country-wide, as institutions are unable to provide this kind of support on their own due to inflation.

Avagyan shared that after the earthquake, several relief organizations came and went, but UMCOR has remained with them some 12 years.  She shared her heartfelt gratitude for UMCOR’s longstanding support for these precious children.

Tomorrow, I visit the second nutritional program supported by UMCOR and Foods Resource Bank, called Fighting Hunger through Sustainable Livelihood Development Project. I will meet with beneficiaries and learn about another cheese program.  Tomorrow evening we drive to Tblisi, Georgia, where the UMCOR Head of Mission will meet me by the Georgian border.   I will learn of a distribution point at the Patriarchy Policlinic Boarding School and visit settlement of internally displaced persons (IDP) in Tbilisi.

*Judith Santiago is the media communications associate for UMCOR.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A New Gift

Kindergarten children in Khor Virap village, Armenia, receive with gladness gifts of UMCOR school kits and health kits.
Photo: Judith Santiago

Today I visited the Sustainable Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Project (SCEAD) in Lasarat village, Armenia, where the Ararat Mountains offer a breathtaking backdrop. The site visit was led by UMCOR’s program coordinator, Armen Khaladyan, and included a visit from the mayor of Lasarat, Daniel Hakobyan, who demonstrated pruning techniques on the program’s fruit tree demo project.

The visit included a look at the agro machinery provided by UMCOR and USDA, and a discussion on the production of 15-minute films that provide agricultural advice and techniques for famers. The films are produced by the SCEAD program Mobile Extension team, and are broadcast in Amarvir, Ararat, and Voyats dzor Marzes.  

The next stop was the Lasarat Ambulatory Clinic where UMCOR personnel met with Medical Mobile Team (MMT) doctors, health volunteers, and expectant mothers who completed mother-to-child HIV transmission awareness training. We discussed the high prevalence rate of HIV, Tuberculosis, and more in Armenia, as well as the importance of continued support from the UM Global AIDS Fund and UMCOR for more training of community health volunteers.

I then visited another cooperative, called Khor Virap, which began in 2003 and has about 76 members. Here, I met a 120-member group of women cooperative members, who expressed their desire to give back to the community by distributing in-kind gifts through UMCOR.

The highlight of the day was when I witnessed a distribution of 50 school kits and 140 health kits from UMCOR Sager Brown to 190 kindergarten students. Nozik Vaskanyuan, the village mayor, attended the distribution event and publicly thanked UMCOR for its continued support in providing assistance to vulnerable children in Armenia.

Tomorrow, I once again will visit Armenia’s Anti – Human Trafficking Project to speak with a survivor who has successfully reintegrated into society.  I will also visit a cheese distribution project, which includes a drive to Gyumri City and a visit to an orphanage there. Gyumri City was devastated by an earthquake in 1988 and I understand that remnants of that earthquake remain. 

The evening came to a close with a re-cap dinner with Gohar Grigorian, UMCOR head of mission for Armenia.  We enjoyed one another’s company and discussed life, God, and the gifts that often lay dormant within us.  As the children in Khor Virap received their new relief-supply gifts, I believe Gohar and I received one too — friendship.

Judith Santiago is the media communications associate for UMCOR.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beauty for Ashes

Arts and crafts pieces beautify the shelter that provides refuge for trafficked survivors.
Photo: Judith Santiago

June 20, 2010

The day started early. I arrived in Yerevan, Armenia at 4:30a.m. Karine Harutunyan of UMCOR’s Armenia office greeted me at the gate with a big UMCOR sign.

As I was driven to the hotel by Arthur, UMCOR’s designated driver, I looked forward to taking advantage of the few short hours of rest before visiting UMCOR Armenia’s office. The trip is part of a two-week assignment to visit UMCOR-NGO projects in both Armenia and the Republic of Georgia.

I wondered what this day would bring. I was there in part to meet survivors of trafficking in an undisclosed shelter. What will the survivors share? What will be the response? Whatever was to come, I readied myself to lend an ear, extend a hand, and be a voice to speak on their behalf. While I anticipated being a vessel of strength for them by sharing a relatable, personal story, they became the strength for me. I honored and admired each one’s courage and fortitude to keep hope alive despite their daily struggles to overcome their past. I witnessed a quiet humility and strength that breathed hope for each of the four women I met. And, I saw glimpses of dignity begin to emerge as they shared their experiences.

One survivor displayed her arts and craft handiwork on the walls and on the shelves of the main living space. Her gift for creating center pieces or adorned frames was greatly encouraged. Her face lit up as we spoke about how talented she was, and how she could one day leverage her new found talent by starting her own business. I admired her pieces of artwork, and realized the pieces expressed the “beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3b) that God gives each of us in the place of our brokenness. When you’re broken there is a something so bittersweet when expression comes from a dark or painful place. In this case, beauty and hope was expressed in the artistic arrangement of flowers. And, isn’t this the expression of Jesus in our lives – that out of the heap of our pain and sin hope emerges? In this shelter, hope was shining everywhere. Smiles instead of despair, joy instead of mourning, beauty instead of ashes…

I was warmed by all of UMCOR’s staff, and I realized that although we were countries apart, we spoke the very same language of compassion for one another as the work continues forward to keep the shelter operating for those yet to be found. More than 85 women have journeyed through its doors and into a more normal life. Some have maintained their identities; others have had to hide theirs; while still others wade through the dark waters. But, even though we don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they’re not there.

Tomorrow is a full day of meeting community health workers, mothers to-be, women-run cooperatives, and volunteers. As part of the trip, we hope to visit the USDA-supported Sustainable Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Development Program; the organization’s HIV/AIDS work, which is funded by the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund; and UMCOR Health, as well as the US Department of States’ Pharmaceutical Distribution Program and Small Reconstruction Projects. I look forward to see what the day will bring.

Judith Santiago is the Media Communications Associate for UMCOR.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

After the Storms: Neighbor Helping Neighbor

The Rev. Tom Hazelwood discusses his experience when visiting Joplin, Missouri right after the tornado hit.

The human story in each disaster we attend is unique each time. This spring, the unique thing is the relentless nature of the storms. The last time I remember a tornado hitting a densely populated area was in 1999, in Moore, Oklahoma. In spring 2011, tornadoes hit populated areas in Raleigh, North Carolina; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Joplin, Missouri; and Springfield, Massachusetts, to name the most ferocious.

Being present with survivors in the aftermath of these events, you get caught up in the emotions. I was in Joplin, Missouri, the day after the tornado hit there. The evening before, people had been out, doing their shopping, living their normal lives. The twister hit at about 6:00 p.m. When I arrived, just 24 hours later, I got an eerie feeling as I drove down the street with District Superintendent Sandra Nenadal and other companions from the Missouri Annual Conference. You could see lights in the rubble. They were interior dome lights and parking lights of cars buried underneath the debris; the batteries were still working. Usually, after a tornado, you will pass houses with spray paint on the side indicating they have been searched; there will be additional marks if there were casualties. In Joplin, there were also marks spray-painted on the sides of cars. There was so much loss of life.

Two days later, I went back again to Joplin with my UMCOR colleague Cathy Earl. So much had changed. At UMCOR, we always say that the first response after a disaster comes from one neighbor helping another. Cathy and I felt so much pride in seeing people helping each other. There were people who live in Joplin who had been trained by UMCOR, and they knew what to do. Seeing that, I realized in a fresh and immediate way that what we do every day is important. It means something to somebody, and we’re touching their lives.

By Rev. Tom Hazelwood
Assistant General Secretary, US Disaster Response, UMCOR