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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-MUSLIMS Feb-23-2005 (760 words) With photos. xxxi

Thai island's Muslims, homeless from tsunamis, find help in nuns

By Stephen Steele
Catholic News Service

KLONG HIN, Thailand (CNS) -- A group of Muslims left homeless and jobless by the tsunamis that hit Phi Phi Island found their strongest advocates to be a group of Thai Catholic nuns.

About 600 people from Phi Phi fled to the Muslim village of Klong Hin on the Thai mainland in the days following the tsunamis. The majority of those on Phi Phi sold souvenirs or operated small food stands. Many were unregistered vendors, leaving them unable to claim benefits for their destroyed businesses.

Sacred Heart Sister Marasi Junchalor, who has worked with the Muslim community since early January, said the government's rules for compensation were unfair and discriminated against the many small and usually poor workers who contributed to life on the island.

The Sacred Heart Sisters work in Klong Hin's Muslim community every day, collecting data that they cross-check against government files to see who is entitled to help. Those left homeless are supposed to receive housing; those who lost their businesses are supposed to receive adequate compensation.

The government has agreed to help 100 of the 200 families that the nuns have identified as needing help.

"We are working hard trying to protect their rights," Sister Marasi said.

She said she was frustrated by the government's "lack of urgency" in helping the Muslim community from Phi Phi. She said the government has made many promises to help, but has taken very little concrete action. She expressed concern that the large sums of money donated to help survivors may get taken by corrupt officials.

"In theory, the government's help is good. But in fact it is not enough, because the money does not go directly to the people," she said.

Father Pornchai Techapitakhtam, pastor of St. Agnes Church in Krabi, who has overseen most of the church's efforts in the South, said the Muslim community "had trouble communicating with authorities and difficulty fulfilling the bureaucratic requirements."

She said the nuns chose to work with the Muslim community because Muslims were among the most vulnerable of the survivors. Although tensions are strong among Muslims and non-Muslims in Thailand's restive South, Sister Marasi said the Muslim community quickly accepted the nuns.

"After the tsunami, the Muslims in this area needed help. So we went to help them, and everyone forgot about the tensions. We are Thai people first, and it is our way to help each other," she said.

Arkom Jaso, a community leader, gave the Sacred Heart Sisters his living room to use as a base for their operations.

"I am very grateful to the sisters for their help. If we had to wait for the government, we would wait a long time. Instead, we needed to organize ourselves," he said.

Sister Marasi said the nuns needed to prioritize their work in the first few days after the tsunami.

"First, they (Muslims) needed psychological help. They were very traumatized and afraid because of the tsunami. So we stayed with them, and they opened up their hearts to us," she said.

The nuns worked with community leaders to develop a plan to help the people.

Next, the nuns helped establish a community kitchen on the grounds of a mosque, where many of those displaced from Phi Phi resided.

"They are poor and need the basic necessities, like food, clothing," she said.

The church gave families $25 to $150 in a one-time grant to help them buy clothes and cooking materials. The church paid the rent for about 25 families who did have relatives to assist them and offered scholarships to cover school costs for uniforms, travel and supplies.

More than a month after the Dec. 26 disaster, community leaders said depression still was rampant among survivors. About 70 children lost one or both parents. Older teens were having the most difficult time adjusting, Arkom said.

Thanawat Thanapitak, 17, Arkom's nephew, did not return to school when classes resumed in February. Arkom wanted his nephew to stay close to his mother, who remained deeply traumatized from losing her husband in the tsunamis, but he also wanted the youth to grieve on his own.

"I was very close to my father, and it feels very strange to live without him. In my mind I am with my father at every moment; I miss having him with me," Thanawat told Catholic News Service in early February.

"But my father wanted me to study as high as I can, and I will do it," the teen said, promising he would return to school for the next semester.


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