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A year later in Bam, 'hard work having an impact'


Geneva, December 10, 2004--Nearly a year after a devastating earthquake struck the city of Bam in Iran, members of the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International continue to walk with the survivors of this disaster, responding to needs that are still huge.

Two ACT members working together in a joint response to the quake, ACT Netherlands and U.S.-based Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), say their work over the past several months in Iran has taught them some important lessons, which can be summed up with some irony in the country's language of Farsi: "moshgeli nist." Literally translated, it means "no problem," but the members say they quickly learned that what it really means is often that "that the road ahead is bumpy and difficult."

The challenges to the many parts of their program from a variety of sources have required ACT Netherlands and PDA to plan and re-plan, adjust and re-assess since beginning their program after delays in June. Between the constantly changing requirements of the Iranian government and the expectations and needs of the people of Bam, these members have tried to remain flexible and in a position to respond to needs. They say in an early-November report on their program that "we believe that we still have sufficient room to implement our program without compromising quality."

ACT Netherlands and PDA are assisting residents of the Bam area in the sectors of shelter, community groups and psycho-social care. The policies of the government of Iran, which has historically not been accustomed to working with organizations from outside the country, has created many of the obstacles to the carrying out of the work as originally planned. Nevertheless, in dealing with the increasing levels of bureaucracy, ACT Netherlands and PDA continue to "gently advance our program so the government is not threatened," says Imad Sabi of ACT Netherlands. "We are deeply committed to doing whatever we can," he adds.

By the end of November, and with the Iranian government's approval, ACT Netherlands and PDA were expected to complete construction on 60 houses for some of the most vulnerable residents of the rural villages of Eslam Abad and Dar Bagh, including the disabled, female-headed households and orphans. Eliaas, a 13-year-old who lost both parents in the earthquake, received one of these houses, which will be in his own name. According to the ACT members, had the home been built for his 70-year-old grandmother caretaker, then at her death, the home would have been divided among remaining relatives. "Now he does not need to worry about being homeless," the members report.

ACT Netherlands and PDA assisted families receiving these homes as they went through the often confusing process of selecting a building contractor and materials, using a local non-governmental organization of architects to meet with recipients. In this way, the members explain, the local organization is also strengthened in the process as it learns new earthquake-proofing techniques and how to assist communities following disasters. This effort to strengthen the capacities of local organizations is an important component of the program of ACT Netherlands and PDA. "Civil society in Iran is weak, and the bureaucracy is strong," Sabi explains. "We are trying to leave something behind - new methods, new approaches."

Another way the members are helping to facilitate the sharing of knowledge is by sponsoring the participation of several psychologists and social workers in a symposium in Turkey with other professionals. This is part of ACT Netherlands and PDA's work in the psycho-social sector of their program. This will provide a place to share experiences and learning care-giving following earthquakes. Turkey experienced large earthquakes in August and November 1999, which several ACT members responded to.

ACT Netherlands and PDA are working with the government's State Welfare Organization in Tehran and the Kerman NGO House to operate four community centers that the members have decided to establish in the city of Bam and a nearby town, rather than in rural areas, so that they can be used in the long-term. ACT Netherlands and PDA will use these community centers to carry out phycho-social care by staff members of Iranian NGOs and agencies.

Sabi says the program's psycho-social care will address issues that the earthquake has caused, especially grief from loss of family members. This care will also address problems that are often present before such disasters and that are often exacerbated by them. The members are finding that addiction to substances such as cocaine has grown in the past year. "It's a way of dealing with the grief, but it's complicating the problem," says Sabi.

In the psycho-social and other sectors, ACT Netherlands and PDA are receiving both planned and unplanned help in their work from other ACT members. Because of delays in beginning psycho-social activities, the members will call upon experts from Church of Sweden Aid and Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) to assist with this part of the program temporarily. NCA has also provided expertise in constructing latrines for the 60 homes that were being constructed and for other water projects.

All of ACT Netherlands and PDA's adjustments to its program have been taken into account in a revised appeal. Sabi emphasizes the commitment ACT Netherlands and PDA have for their work in Bam. Despite the challenges, they will continue to work there because "we have value to add." Sabi's counterpart in PDA, Susan Ryan, says, "It is hard, hard work, and we have a rather low profile, but a solid reputation for standing on principles. Together, the ACT network is having an impact in this region."

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