Sunday, 20 July 2008

Myanmar visitor tells of relief efforts

Of The Gazette Staff
Cyclone Nargis made international headlines when it swept through Myanmar on May 3.

The devastation remained in the forefront as people around the world worried about how surviving residents would ever recover. The country is ruled by a military junta, which keeps it closed off from the outside world and rejected international assistance after the cyclone.

The plight in Myanmar, also known as Burma, eventually fell out of mainstream concern. The junta says that the victims are recovering, but people like Chylo Laszloffy and his dad, Jeff, of Laurel know that much more remains to be done.

United States trip

This weekend the Laszloffy family hosted Tha Nyan, who goes by Sonny and is honorary general secretary of the National YMCAs of Myanmar. He is making his 12th trip to the United States, visiting friends like the Laszloffy family before attending a conference in Louisville, Ky., beginning early this week.

The Laszloffys are affiliated with Vision Beyond Borders, a Sheridan, Wyo.,-based Christian organization. Chylo recently visited Myanmar and delivered medical and other supplies for the cyclone victims. The aid was distributed through a network Sonny has helped develop.

"The bottom line is there is still a huge need there," he said. "It's just not going to go away, despite what their government tells us, that everything is all right."

Valuable medical items

Chylo knew that the supplies he delivered, including valuable medical items donated by St. Vincent Healthcare, made it to those in need, but that is the exception, not the rule, he said. At the hotel where he stayed in Yangon, Chylo saw representatives of nongovernmental organizations sitting around working on laptops all day because the Myanmar junta would not let them into the cyclone-hit area.

"Guys like Sonny are much more effective," Chylo said.

Chylo also helped locate and purchase six parcels of land that will eventually be used to build orphanages for the children of the country. Each orphanage is designed to house 100 children. There were 60,000 to 80,000 children orphaned by the cyclone, according to Vision Beyond Borders.

The children are especially vulnerable, Jeff Laszloffy said, as the slave trade, mainly from Thailand, moves into Myanmar. Providing them a place to live is one of the biggest safety issues available. Buying the land and building an orphanage costs about $50,000, according to Vision Beyond Borders.

"Lots of people in Montana drive pickup trucks that cost more than what it costs to house 100 kids," Jeff Laszloffy said.

Grace Bible Church in Laurel has already committed to building an orphanage and agreed to pay for its operation, he said.

Americans are quite wealthy by international standards, Chylo said. "This is our opportunity to show some generosity, to stand up and give," he said. "We can make a big difference without much sacrifice on our part."

For example, he said, to build a small house in Myanmar costs about $300. A more deluxe model, with kitchen, is $450.

"There's still a lot that can be done," Chylo said.

Vision Beyond Borders is also working to make sure that the Myanmar people can become self-sufficient. Long-term aid projects include buying rice seedlings to replant about 3,500 acres of paddies.

In Myanmar it is monsoon season, which is welcomed because the storms should help leach out some of the salt that the cyclone dumped into agricultural land. The salt was brought in by the storm surge that drove water and sand from the ocean into the delta.

Sonny said there are more than 11 million acres of paddies in the country, about 6 million of which were affected by the cyclone. While 3,500 acres is a small portion of the land, when planted it will feed 63,600 people, according to Dyann Romeijn, regional coordinator for Vision Beyond Borders.

It cost $90,000 to purchase the seedlings, or about $1.42 for each person they will eventually feed. Vision Beyond Borders went out on a limb and made the purchase because of the narrow window of time in which planting could be done this year, Laszloffy said.

Sonny said that about 80,000 people have been confirmed dead from the cyclone while another 1.2 million are listed as missing. In all, more than 5 million people were affected by the cyclone, and more than 1 million continue to need assistance.

Outside relief - such as food, medical supplies, clothing and other basic needs - will be required for at least another year, Sonny said. Rehabilitation - such as building houses and agrarian efforts such as livestock production - will take at least three years and probably much longer. After those basic needs are met, other essentials, such as building schools, can be addressed.

The combination of material and familial losses makes the victims psychologically vulnerable, Sonny said. "It takes a lot of time" to recover emotionally, he said.

His country's people, both Christian and Buddhist, have hope for a better life, Sonny said. There is a place in the cyclone recovery for evangelism, he said, because Christians can bring hope to those who feel hopeless, by teaching that God will protect them and provide an afterlife.

"They can know salvation, they can know Jesus," he said quietly and then broken into a grin and exclaimed, "Thank you, Cyclone Nargis!"

Sonny does not talk much about the ruling military junta - any political talk is too likely to lead to retribution.

"I would have to stay in Montana," he said.

Contact Becky Shay at or 657-1231.

No comments: