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Local tsunami relief effort is close to home for Cornell grad student

By Franklin Crawford

Saiful Mahdi's Jan. 14 report from Banda Aceh, Sumatra, was grim.

"Dead bodies are still everywhere," the Cornell doctoral student told friend and Cornell postdoc Mazalan Kamis. "Many more are expected as mountains of rubble are yet to be cleared."

Kamis immediately posted the update on the Aceh relief fund Web site http://www.acehrelief.org/. The site was constructed by members of the Aceh Relief Fund task force, a small volunteer group from the Indonesian and Malaysian community at Cornell. It includes updates from Mahdi's Aceh journal and a daily tally of donations, among other features.

"We have used all our own money to get the Web site started," said Kamis. "And within one week we had raised $50, 000 from people all over the United States, including Canada, for Aceh relief."

As of Jan. 17, that number had risen above $60,000. The monies go directly to relief efforts in Banda Aceh, Kamis said.

Mahdi, who was born and raised in the Banda Aceh province, is a doctoral candidate in regional science and city and regional planning at Cornell. He is searching for 10 missing family members while at the same time conducting emergency relief efforts in Aceh. A sister and three children were located alive last week, Mahdi told Kamis.

The northern tip of Sumatra was hardest hit by the earthquake-spawned tidal wave which so far has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people in Banda Aceh alone, according to Associated Press reports. The death toll for the entire Asian region is now more than 175,000, according to Jan. 17 reports from The Daily Telegraph.

With help from friends and colleagues, Mahdi flew to Aceh in early January with supplies and money. Derek Cabrera, a fellow Cornell doctoral student, donated Mahdi's plane ticket. Supplies were donated through several local stores and individuals, Kamis said.

Mahdi found his childhood village completely destroyed. Basic supplies were available, he told Kamis, but distribution was poor. His arrival in Medan and his journey to Aceh is documented through Jan. 9, with several photos posted on the Aceh relief Web site.

"Saiful and his network of friends are better coordinated to deliver supplies compared to most other international relief works -- especially within the areas where they are operating," Kamis posted on his site.

Kamis said Mahdi is focusing his efforts on people who are not in shelters -- many who fled inland and are now homeless.

"We are attempting to build long-term community-based support and possibly to adopt a village," he said. "Right now we are working on our own, but we are hoping that the university will be able to assist us soon."

Brendan O'Brien, director of Cornell's International Students and Scholars Organization, said it is not yet known if any other Cornell students were affected by the disaster, which occurred during winter break.

January 20, 2005

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