Monday, 8 December 2014

The emergency volunteers who stayed to build a community

Elvi Zaharah Siregar teaches at the state vocational school SMK Negeri 1 in Calang, Aceh Jaya. Ten years ago, she was among the first batch of volunteer teachers sent to Aceh after the tsunami. © UNICEF Indonesia / 2014 / Achmadi.  

CALANG, Indonesia, October 2014 – Dian Permata Sari was just six years old when the Indian Ocean tsunami destroyed her home town of Calang, around 100 kilometers south of Banda Aceh on Indonesia’s Sumatra island.

After the huge earthquake on the morning of the 26th December 2004, Dian’s family saw the seawater receding. They managed to run to the hills before the tsunami hit the shore. The family stayed away from the coast for two days.

“When we came back, all the buildings were destroyed, the trees had been brought down and there were bodies and garbage everywhere,” says Dian, now a serious and articulate 16-year-old girl.


Just 700 kilometres away in North Sumatra’s capital city of Medan, Elvi Zahara Siregar also felt the earthquake.

As a newly qualified teacher, the 26-year-old was still living with her parents at the time. 

Elvi remembers that day clearly – the earthquake that caused the devastating tsunami in Aceh shook her house in Medan so violently, she couldn’t stand up for five minutes and water in her parents’ aquarium kept splashing over the sides and onto the floor.

Over the following days, she watched television news reports of the havoc that had been wreaked in Aceh province.


Back in Aceh, Dian’s family had to rebuild their lives. Her parents insisted that she should go back to school as soon as possible.

“It was very important for me to be around with other children and to have the routine of going to school every day,” she says, looking back on that time.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, UNICEF worked with the Indonesian authorities to set up temporary schools across Aceh to provide some sense of normality to children like Dian who had survived.

This meant providing tents for temporary classrooms, as well as other materials. It also meant finding teachers to replace the many thousands who had died as a result of the tsunami.


Elvi gets ready to leave for school with her husband Suhada in front their house in Calang. After her stint as a volunteer teacher ended, Elvi, a native of Medan, North Sumatra, decided to stay on and teach in Aceh. © UNICEF Indonesia / 2014 / Achmadi.  

Shortly after the disaster, Elvi spotted a vacancy notice in the newspaper in Medan – UNICEF and the Ministry of Education were calling for hundreds of teachers to volunteer to go to Aceh so that schools there could reopen.

Elvi signed up straight away. “I just wanted to do something helpful,” she says.

After written tests and a week of training by the Indonesian military, Elvi signed a six-month contract to go to the devastated seaside town of Calang and teach the children there. And all for no reward.

In the weeks and months after the disaster, UNICEF helped recruit 1,110 temporary teachers like Elvi for 13 districts affected by the tsunami.


Elvi’s first glimpse of Calang, stepping off the boat that had brought her there, was shocking. All roads into the town had been destroyed by the tsunami.

 “The town was absolutely flattened, nothing was standing,” she recalls.

Elvi was among a group of 50 volunteer teachers sent to the district of Aceh Jaya. They found people traumatised by the disaster, mostly living in tents and surviving on rations of rice and other basic foods distributed by NGOs.

This became Elvi’s life too. She set up home in what remained of one of the local schools and started giving lessons every day.

“I taught all ages, all children between 6 and 18, whoever was around and wanted to learn,” she says.

At the beginning, resources were limited and there were no textbooks, so Elvi had to improvise. She had planned ahead and brought some supplies like pencils and paper from Medan.

In the following weeks, UNICEF set up more than 1,000 makeshift tent classrooms and provided 230,000 textbooks and almost 7,000 ‘School-in-a-Box’ teaching aids and supply kits for more than half a million children.

Together with Save the Children, World Vision, the International Rescue Committee, AusAid, USAID and other aid agencies, UNICEF launched the Back-to-School campaign that became a cornerstone of UNICEF’s humanitarian response and long-term reconstruction work in Aceh. As part of the programme, UNICEF helped build 345 new, earthquake-resistant and child-friendly schools.  In the decade following the post-tsunami reconstruction period, UNICEF increasingly focused on improving the quality of education in schools across the province.


Student performs inside a class at SMK 1 in Calang. Most of the students lost their homes and their families in the disaster and it took them a while to recover from the shock. © UNICEF Indonesia / 2014 / Achmadi 

When Elvi began to work in Calang, many of her pupils were still distressed by what had happened to them and their families and friends. She spent time explaining the causes of tsunamis to help them understand.

Living and working in such conditions was physically tough and emotionally draining. When Elvi’s six-month contract was up, she was ready to go home. But the local community had other ideas. They pleaded with Elvi to stay, and clubbed together to offer her a small wage.

“Being a teacher is my vocation,” Elvi says, “and I decided that I can teach anywhere, I don’t need to be in Medan. So I decided to stay.”

Six months soon became a year, then two years. As Calang returned to something approaching normality, a local government school offered Elvi a permanent contract and she accepted. In 2007, she married her sweetheart from Medan, persuading him to also make the move to Aceh.


Now, ten years later, Elvi is still living and working in Calang. She teaches business studies to Dian and other pupils at SMK Negeri 1. Her classes are fun and interactive, with students divided into groups to tackle business projects and then present them to the rest of the class.

“I feel like I’m part of the community,” she says. “I sometimes still see those children that I taught in 2005. They’re like my little brothers and sisters. Knowing they’re around is one of the reasons why I’ve stayed.”