I love this photo. It was taken about 6 months ago during a trip to RakiRaki, the community we support in Fiji. I am sitting with our in-country Coordinator, my long time friend Urmila, outside her humble, corrugated iron home. We had just finished the meal she always makes me when I visit; spicy tomato relish, okra curry and roti. The best Indian food I have eaten has come from her kitchen, griddles and pots over an open fire in a clay pit.
I remember how content I felt that Sunday, we had just farewelled a group from the German International School, our great supporters who had been visiting the schools we work with in the local community and we were sitting outside on the porch overlooking the fields and mountains. If you’re lucky, in the afternoons a sea breeze will cool things down as it did that day, and the quiet can calm a frenetic city girl like me.
Urmila’s grand daughter was helping pick and sort chillies from the bush and we all just sat chatting. I realised in that moment that it felt like home. It’s familiar to me after 10 years of visits and the family who live there have become my extended family. We work together for the same cause but as Kym, one of our team members said after her first visit some years ago – It’s personal for me now.
We have recently posted photos of Kajul, Urmila’s daughter, the very first Girl to be supported by our program. She has graduated school and has started Uni and we couldn’t be prouder. So it was upsetting to hear from her late Saturday night, away from home staying near Uni, worried about her family and scared by what was coming in the form of the most destructive cyclone not only in Fiji’s recorded history, but in the Southern Hemisphere.
Urmila had also been texting me, assuring me that she would be moving to the local school to take shelter and that they were taking the government’s warnings and direction seriously, they have been through many a cyclone, but nothing like this.
After we lost contact I followed the storm closely and felt sick to my stomach when I read it would be making landfall in RakiRaki. Kajul texted one last time and said that her mum and family hadn’t been able to get to shelter after all, and I tried to imagine a scenario where their home was able to withstand the force of Category 5 Cyclone Winston.
In March last year I was in Vanuatu days after Category 5 Cyclone Pam slammed into that island nation. I could not process what I was seeing having been there the week before and many times before that. The destruction was unforgiving and did not discriminate. So my heart stayed firmly in my throat until I heard from my friend today.
Urmila is in shock and distressed. Their house and all their possessions, their animals and their livelihoods are all gone. They survived because they were able to make it to a neighbour’s house that was sturdier. Her husband is badly hurt, his face having been slashed by flying debri.
There is no clean water or electricity and the information is still sporadic. I am going on occasional texts and Facebook messages from her eldest daughter in Nadi. Emergency services haven’t made their way there yet, trees are still down and we have no way of knowing yet how our Girls and their families are doing.
What we know for sure is that the damage is widespread and devastating, many, many people are homeless.
The families we work with will need help getting back on their feet. We will need to replace school books and bags, uniforms and travel passes. While the Fiji Red Cross and other services will help with blankets and water, medical treatment and emergency items, we will be IT for helping our Girls get back to school.
Their families are vulnerable for many reasons, but what upsets me the most in times like these is that they can’t just rebuild and get on with it. There is no home and contents insurance, no local Salvos or Vinnies or food trucks. They live in remote, rural areas and are now exposed with nowhere to live. Also, our Indo-Fijian families don’t have clan or village land to go home to.
It feels overwhelming right now, so we’re just going to do what is in our hand to do. We’re going to get the Girls back to school, replace chicken coops and veggie patches and help our much loved Urmila and her family recover.
If you would like to help us do that, we (and they) would be very grateful. It is life changing work we are a part of. As one of my favourites Glennon Doyle Melton says, “we belong to each other.”
Thank you for the offers of help that are already coming not even 24 hours later, we are truly humbled and love your compassion in a time where there is so much need everywhere we turn.
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We will be in Fiji in May and will report back to you with pics and stories,
In solidarity with our friends and the community we support,
Jane for team ‘a Girl & her world’