Remember Nargis? Myanmar does, even if Americans don’t

Tracy Simmons/Religion News Service

Nargis is a word the Burmese will never forget. Many Americans, however, would probably have to Google it.

A year after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), faith-based humanitarian groups are still working to repair the damage, long after the storm faded from U.S. headlines.

Humanitarian groups say they aren’t surprised—even if they remain frustrated—with Americans’ short attention spans when it comes to global natural disasters. The problem, they say, is that the need doesn’t go away, even if the media does.

Nargis killed more than 140,000 people, orphaned 60,000 children and caused about $10 billion in damages when it hit on May 2, 2008. But Richard Chio, who has family in Myanmar, said Americans have forgotten about the devastation of his homeland—where his mother and brother still reside.

“People there are homeless, jobless and have nowhere to go,” he said. “They need help right now pretty bad.”

Jeff Wright, emergency response manager for World Vision, partly blames the media. “Americans are headline driven,” he said, noting that disasters like Cyclone Nargis linger in U.S. news until the next big news event happens.

“The media is also headline driven,” he said. “We’re so bombarded with media information all that time that it’s easy to get distracted.”

In many ways, it was the media that first fixed the world’s attention on Nargis after Myanmar’s military junta declined to accept outside aid. After intense media attention, the government finally relented.

Yet even though his organization’s efforts don’t make the papers anymore when it comes to Myanmar, World Vision continues to keep staff in the field. And the need hasn’t gone away.

Currently World Vision is trying to help the Burmese get their agricultural system up and running again. The Christian aid group also continues to send basic supplies and is trying to protect orphans.

“As with most tragedies, children are at a high risk,” he said, explaining that people try to kidnap orphans in order to traffic in them.

Wright said relief efforts in Myanmar are challenging but rewarding, and he tries to keep donors engaged in the region’s ongoing phenomenon. Education, he said, is key.

“We’re trying to bring it to the attention of donors,” he said. “It’s crucial to remain engaged.”

But those working in the field need attention too, he said. Working in disheartening conditions can take its toll—physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“We require people to take some downtime, it’s so high pressure,” Wright said, explaining that staffers are provided with counseling.

Pastor Wes Flint is also staying active in Myanmar relief efforts—although his Montana town might not know it. The pastor sits on the board of Vision Beyond Borders, a global Christian relief agency.

He’s visited Myanmar three times since the cyclone hit, cleaning up debris, repairing roofs and when possible, mending souls.

“People were really devastated from the cyclone, especially in the Delta region … some people’s entire extended family was washed out to sea,” Flint said. “There are a lot of emotional scars.”

He said what Americans saw on TV after the cyclone wasn’t an accurate representation of the situation anyway. “A lot of it was staged,” he said.

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Patrick Klein, the founder and director of VBB, has been to Myanmar four times since the cyclone, and said he is energized by the locals. His organization has hand-delivered 140 duffel bags filled with supplies to the Burmese. They’ve purchased enough rice seedlings to replant 3,500 acres and have developed a micro-enterprise loan program to help women start small businesses.

“The people there are so grateful for our help,” he said.

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Michael Wiest, who oversees charitable giving and awareness for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, said his agency still has Myanmar on its radar, but his office has shifted focus to other areas in need, including Sudan’s troubled Darfur region. He explained that they, too, often follow the headlines because that’s where the immediate needs are.

However, they don’t forget about the areas they’ve helped and try to continue to serve them. Spokeswoman Liz O’Neill said efforts have now shifted from providing everyday basic necessities to helping rebuild lives.

“Our partners are helping farmers, fishermen and tradespeople as they try to earn a living again,” she said. “They’re rebuilding roads, dikes and paddy fields. The goal is for families to fully recover from the devastation and become self-reliant again, as they were before Nargis struck.”

Since Nargis roared ashore, the U.S. has provided $75 million in aid. The secular group Refugees International is hoping for the U.S. to send another $30 million in 2010. The group’s vice president, Joel Charny, reminded Americans not to forget about aging disasters, like Myanmar.

“Even though it isn’t in the headlines, we need to put it in front of donors,” he said. “More needs to be done.”