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March 31, 2005

Pitt prof aids Indonesian tsunami victims

This week’s earthquake in Indonesia was a sharp reminder of the December earthquake that spawned the tsunami in the same region, leaving as many as 300,000 dead or missing.

One Pitt professor is determined that Pittsburgh and its people will remember the tsunami victims by forging a sister city relationship with communities in Aceh, the Indonesian province with the highest regional death toll.

Robbie Ali, a visiting assistant professor in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) and director of the school’s new Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, traveled to Aceh in February to provide medical services, such as checking for malaria, and to identify communities that could benefit from a sister city arrangement with Pittsburgh and the University. (See Jan. 20 University Times.) He targeted Nagan Raya, a 30-by-50-mile district in Aceh. Ali is particularly interested in some of the smaller, remote villages within Nagan Raya.

While there, Ali investigated potential projects for the Pittsburgh Indonesia Partnership Fund, established by the University’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and GSPH shortly after the tsunami.

To date, the fund has raised about $1,000 from Pitt employees, community groups and others, according to Wendy Wareham, GSPIA’s director of development. Ali is in the process of proposing potential projects in Nagan Raya to University officials. Wareham said deans from GSPH and GSPIA will decide which projects the schools will support.

No matter what Pitt decides, Ali is planning a medical mission to Aceh in April; he wants to promote community-managed health and to bring in other experts to help increase the standard of living of residents as villages rebuild.

Ali is focusing his efforts on villages within the Nagan Raya district. To find a community that really could benefit from Pittsburgh help, Ali sought a village or province that wasn’t completely wiped out. Often times, the shore communities that are destroyed don’t resettle because of the threat of another disaster, Ali explained. Most of these deserted villages are decimated, covered in mud, uprooted trees and remnants of building foundations, he said.

“I tried to find a remote village,” Ali explained. “I know those places tend to get neglected because they’re hard to get to.”

He is familiar with this part of the world, having spent part of the last three years in Indonesian Borneo trying to protect the rain forest and to develop a health program.

During his most recent trip, Ali traveled by bus, truck and motorcycle, sleeping on whatever floor was available. He eventually came upon Kuala Tripa, a remote village on the west coast of Aceh.

The tsunami claimed the lives of 60 out of the 1,000 people who lived in Kuala Tripa; another 400 residents lost their homes. But because the village still exists — only a portion was damaged by the tsunami — people will return, reasoned Ali.

“This village is likely to be rebuilt with new homes, schools and health facilities,” he said. Now, about 130 homeless people from the village are living together in an old courthouse, north of the village.

“I think that they are still a community. They know each other. I think they’re having a hard time,” Ali said. “It’s interesting to see the unity created from this tragedy.”

For more information on Pitt’s response to the tsunami, go to GSPIA’s web site, or visit Ali’s web site,

To donate to the Pittsburgh Indonesian Partnership Fund, send a check payable to the University of Pittsburgh, indicating the Pittsburgh Indonesia Partnership Fund, to Wendy Wareham, director of development, GSPIA, 3403 Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh 15260.

—Mary Ann Thomas

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