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 CNS Story:

PORTBLAIR-CAMP Feb-10-2005 (710 words) xxxi

Tsunami refugees at Catholic-run camp say they're treated like family

By Anto Akkara
Catholic News Service

PORT BLAIR, India (CNS) -- More than 1,000 tsunami refugees remain camped at a Catholic-run school in Port Blair, and although the majority are not Catholic, they said they are being treated like family.

"These fathers and sisters are looking after us like their children. They are really helping us to forget our sorrows," said Saira Banu, a Muslim tsunami victim who lost her three children and 10 other family members.

Banu was among hundreds of tsunami victims airlifted by the Indian air force from the devastated Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the relief camp at the Catholic Nirmala Senior Secondary School in Port Blair, administrative capital of the archipelago of 550 islands.

During her more than four-week stay at the Catholic camp, Banu said the "love and care" shown by church workers has helped her overcome the shock of losing not only her three children but her mother, brother, sister and others.

"We came here without anything, but we don't lack anything here. More than that, whenever they find any one of us in tears, they comfort us," said Banu.

At any given time, dozens of church volunteers are working with camp inmates in jobs such as providing medical attention to managing the community kitchen that cooks three meals a day.

"This is not a Catholic camp. They are attending to us like members of a family," said Moses Ruben, a Protestant from Perka village on Car Nicobar island , which suffered the worst casualties in the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Nearly half of the inmates at the Nirmala school camp belong to the Protestant Church of North India. The camp also has hundreds of Hindus and Muslims along with Catholic evacuees, some of whom have been airlifted from submerged islands in the far south of the archipelago.

"This (camp) is like a family for us now. We know each of them," said Sister Francisca, a member of the Sisters of Charity of St. Anne, who has been providing medical attention to the tsunami victims at the camp since Dec. 28, when the first batch of evacuees arrived.

"Most of them came with cuts and bruises all over them requiring daily dressing. Worse still, they were in tears most of the time," Sister Francisca said while treating a young girl suffering from nausea.

The nun pointed out that as their physical wounds healed, camp residents were "also getting emotionally stronger."

Caroline Mathew, principal of Nirmala, said she feels "more like a social worker now than the principal."

"I am here every day from 6 a.m. and return home only after 10 (p.m.)," said Mathew, whose husband joins her in the evenings after his normal job.

In the weeks following the tsunamis, Mathew encouraged the teachers in the school to create informal classes for the 250 school-age camp residents during the day. When the government ordered the closed schools reopened Jan 24, Mathew included the tsunami victims in the classrooms with her 600 other students. Nongovernmental organizations covered the costs of texts and supplies.

"I am really struck by the way these people have adjusted to this life (in the camp)," said Father Jesuino Almeida, Port Blair Diocese's vicar general, who spends every evening at the camp.

Like Father Almeida, dozens of Catholics also troop into the camp in the evening after their work. They look at ways to meet the needs of residents, while Port Blair Bishop Aleixo das Neves Dias, who does not wear his cassock, moves around the camp unnoticed, listening to the tales of the tsunami victims.

The relief camp turns into a village fair as the night begins. The tribal Catholic youths stage their traditional dances to the accompaniment of drums, while orphans from Nicobar watch the nimble foot movements in awe.

The orphans come forward to sing Hindi film songs -- some of them rhythmic and others poignant in memory of those who died -- bringing tears in the eyes of the swelling crowd.

When the entertainment ends, Christian, Hindu and Muslim representatives lead them in prayers -- for courage to forget their sorrows and look to the future and for thanks for "saving" them from the tragedy that beset others.

END


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