On call to help
Elly and Jack Dalmaijer have helped in 21 disaster zones and are ready to go again
By: Susan Jones
| Posted: Saturday, Jan 19, 2013 06:00 am
Accountants Elly and Jack Dalmaijer had a different retirement plan than most, which involved personal expense, lots of travel to the most desperate places in the world and the chance to witness more heartache but also more joy than they ever imagined possible.
Earlier this month the Dalmaijers were presented with Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medals because of all the work they’ve done to give aid in some 21 different world disaster zones over the past 13 years. They received the medals at their St. Albert Christian Reformed Church because, for the past 13 years, they’ve volunteered with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), which last year changed its name to World Renew.
“It began in 2000, with our first project helping people after the terrible floods in Mozambique,” Elly said.
Jack Dalmaijer’s task there was to distribute and manage the millions of dollars worth of donated funds from world churches. At first Elly was only along for the ride but she soon became involved in emergency relief.
“I went along as the wife, but while we were there, a whole village washed away. The relief committee asked if I could set up a plan to provide construction material for new houses,” Elly said.
When she looks back now, Elly thinks of the months spent in Mozambique as a kind of tutorial in aid giving. A total of 64 houses were actually constructed in the village. While she is proud of that, Elly learned to trust the Africans’ own knowledge of their own land and community.
One night, near the end of the project, Elly slept on a floor with 12 village women.
“It was a place where the chickens were running over me. We were laughing and talking and finally I asked why the village was taking so long to build the houses,” Elly recalled.
She worried about being accountable because materials had been supplied but nothing was built.
“Finally they said, ‘Oh Elly, we didn’t know how to tell you but in Africa we build from the roof down, not from the floor up,” she said, as she explained that construction while the roof reeds finished growing.
“It was a huge lesson for me. They were glad to have the new flooring and the two-by-fours. They told me it was good because now they didn’t have to live like animals. But they just had to wait for the reeds to grow,” she said.
Other lessons learned included waiting for the villagers to tell her themselves about just who needed help. She learned that, when possible, people want to feel pride and accomplishment and that most people want to help themselves, even when they need a handout.
“At no time can we harm people more than we can when they are in a disaster because when they are in a disaster, they are very vulnerable. You can give, give, give but you destroy their sense of self worth,” she said.
Elly began to understand the long-lasting social effects of giving aid to the villagers. For example, sturdy houses had to be built, but care had to be taken so no envy was created among other residents.
Even donations of goods from Canada could mean that the villagers who sold things like toothbrushes and T-shirts in the marketplace no longer had any livelihood. Often she saw it was better to give financial aid because that put money in circulation within a community and meant more employment and trade for all.
“Everything you do starts a chain of events. It’s very emotional. You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing the best for that family or am I doing this to make myself feel better? Will giving this thing mean they will no longer have a job?’”
Since 2000 the Dalmaijers have helped in the wake of volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides and famine. They have volunteered in several African countries, in the Philippines, in Haiti and in Mexico, often spending up to six months at a time in a given location.
Last fall the Dalmaijers spent six weeks in Niger to help finish three projects by World Renew, which provided famine relief.
“We helped in 75 communities and 2,062 households received food for work. In addition, 1,152 households bought food at subsidized prices and 300 families – the most vulnerable – got completely free food,” Elly said.
Niger is primarily a Muslim country and there were issues within some villages about receiving aid from a Christian organization.
At first the chief of the village of Kiki refused aid, because he worried that to get it, his people would need to convert to Christianity. Once the villagers saw the aid that other regions were receiving, the chief changed his mind and the villagers worked with World Renew to build a school.
“There is a big difference between saying that we do this because we are Christians and between saying that we do this to turn you into a Christian,” Elly said.
She witnessed a turnaround in the way families were living because the project provided food for work. That meant that men who had gone to Cote d’Ivoire looking for work came back home.
“There are so many social problems when the men leave, including the increased spread of AIDS. In our case, the men came back because there was work,” she said.
For the most part the famine in Niger was averted and that too had repercussions, not just in Africa, but for every agency seeking future donations for international aid. It’s an odd conundrum, but it’s hard to get people to give donations when there is no evidence of immediate disaster.
“The high cost of food globally has a huge impact on poverty,” Elly said. “Then there was no rain and that caused a drought. Then in Mali, to the north of Niger, rebels had taken over so more refugees flooded into Niger, and that meant more hunger. Those things together caused famine, but famine of the kind in Ethiopia in the 1980s didn’t happen because we responded in time.”
Human rights agencies are now able to predict natural famines in a way that never before happened. They can study weather patterns and guess quite accurately when crops may fail.
Sadly, the world media tromps into disaster areas seeking to help by publishing stories and photos of famine victims, Elly says. The agencies still need to give aid even if there are no children with swollen bellies and hollow rib cages, but these are the images that interest the media.
“Photos like that are disaster porn. The story should be that we responded in time and prevented a full-blown famine. Since Ethiopia, local African countries have learned to respond to the signals of potential famine. There is more knowledge and more long-range planning,” she said.
In addition to building schools and a bridge, the World Renew program helped with environmental reclamation projects such as digging holes to keep the moisture in the soil. In three villages they worked with farmers on pesticide reduction by providing colonies of pest-eating wasps.
“The rains have come, so for the most part they should be OK now in Niger. They still have no goats – no animals. They don’t eat the goats, except for special occasions, but they sell the goats for cash, or to pay for school fees. But for the most part, the famine was averted,” Elly said.
She and Jack are back in St. Albert for now but there’s no knowing for how long. World disasters have a way of happening again and again. If there is another disaster, the Dalmaijers will go and do what they can.
“We are there for the humanitarian reason. Most often, as in Niger, we are there because people need food. In Niger people were hungry,” Elly said.
Elly doesn’t worry about the when and the where. Instead she thinks of the time when she was a child in 1953 when the aid-giving community of the world came to help victims of a flood in Holland.
“How often people have said to us, ‘you don’t even know us, but you help us,’” she said. “In Holland when I was a child there was an enormous outpouring of aid. Countries do that for each other and individuals do too.”