Thursday, November 21, 2013

Poor People Helping Poor People

Here's a little film explaining a bit of what ACHR is doing

I want to preface this comes from a rather round about process. My nephew, Thomas Andrew Kerr has been working with an organization, ACHR, The Asian Coalition For Housing Rights, in Bangkok Thailand for many years. He is an architect who is dedicated to creating ways for people to have affordable housing and legally retain their traditional lands. They design housing solutions, provide the legal and financial framework for the poorest communities in South East Asia to retain their land. They fight very hard for funding, but they have always been able to provide the fastest most efficient solutions to help communities rebuild after disasters. They have rebuilt communities after the 2003 Tsunami in Thailand and Indonesia. They have even been able to connect poor people in New Orleans with Indonesians in a series of workshops that have empowered Louisiana communities to find the solutions to their housing and land rights crisis after Katrina! They are over whelmed now dealing with the aftermath of the Typhoon in the Philippines, but they are already on the cutting edge of creating people powered and financed solutions to this catastrophe. ACHR has had one success story after another. It's all about people helping themselves and creating the means to let them design, imagine and realize their own future. I've written about them and their work a few times in the past few years. Visit their website and read the newsletter to see what they do and what you can do to help. This is one NGO that has virtually no over head and will make every cent you donate reach those who they are helping in the most direct positive manner.

Tom is publishing this particular piece in his next news letter. But, it was sent to him by my wife who has been following this particular European story for years.Tom was so moved by it, that he is using it. In his own words,

"This little story comes from way outside ACHR's usual sphere of attention - from a tiny village in the poorest region of southern Italy, where a remarkable community-initiated and community-managed program for dealing with the huge influx of refugees from Africa and the middle east is showing new light. The story provides a big boost to those of us who spend a lot of time arguing that the poor are not a problem but a resource for the cities they live in, and that when they are treated like human beings, they can bring about great and unexpected things for everyone. The story also shows us how much local communities - even very poor ones - can do to solve big, complicated problems that their governments can't."

Lampedusa is a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea, about half way between the island of Sicily and the African coast of Tunisia. Because it is part of Italy, Lampedusa has become one of the primary destinations for tens of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Asia trying to enter Europe. Most of them are fleeing unspeakable things: civil war, torture, ethnic cleansing, dispossession, and worse. And most must sell everything they have to pay smugglers to transport them to Lampedusa, in rickety boats so overcrowded that more than 7,000 people have drowned or died of exposure and dehydration during the journey. Just last month, a boat carrying 500 migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia, sank off the coast of Lampedusa and at least 300 people died.
Now the Italian coast guard has a mission by the EU to rescue these people. The ones who survive are then handed over to the police and then to the health authorities (in that order) and locked up in a huge "temporary holding camp" in Lampedusa, behind barbed wire, where they languish in terrible conditions for months and months. Little by little, as their papers move through the EU bureaucracy, they are let out. Many are lured into bonded labor syndicates controlled by the mafia. Some make it to the more prosperous cities in northern Italy or to other parts of Europe. But almost everywhere they go, they face suspicion, fear, discrimination and outright hatred in countries where immigration has become a political hot potato: these are the people nobody wants. In Rome and Perugia, we saw so many of them selling flowers and trinkets to tourists - they all had such an air of desperation, I kept wondering where they sleep and how they eat?
But I just saw a documentary about a village in the impoverished Calabria Region of southern Italy, which is one of a growing number of communities in southern Italy that have been doing remarkable things for these people who nobody wants, nobody welcomes. Acquaformosa was itself an extremely poor village, in a region of Italy that has always been poor, and even now is a place where more people run away than stay. Many of Calabria's villages are dying: so depopulated that the schools are being shut down for lack of students, the shops are closing for lack of customers and the
fields are going unfarmed for lack of laborers. In Acquaformosa, for generations, the men have had to go to other countries to find work to support their families, so they have great empathy for these new refugees, and decided to take them in.
All the new children are enrolled in school, and so schools are able to stay open and the local teachers keep their jobs. It is great to see all these different colors and nationalities all in school, learning Italian. The EU provides the refugees with a small living subsidy of 20 Euros a day,
which comes in the form of coupons which they can spend at the local bakeries, butchers and green grocers, and then the trades people take the coupons to the Mayor and are reimbursed. As a result, businesses that were failing are being given new life. And houses that were abandoned or for sale are being occupied and renewed, while local trades that were dying out are being revived with this new influx of workers. The Mayor was saying that they had had a huge feast, with cooking from all these different cultures, with the best desserts ever, and that the local people in Acquaformosa were having their own culture broadened as a result of this influx. It moved me to tears to see what people with empathy, compassion and a little plain good sense can do.
This resettlement program is being run entirely by the village itself, and it turns out to be a win-win prospect for everybody. They have pulled off an extraordinary trick: managing simultaneously to create employment, to stop a mass exodus from their village and to find a solution to the controversial issue of asylum seekers. And here is the cherry on the cake: it costs the EU just 20 Euros a day to support a refugee in Acquaformosa has set up, as opposed to 70 Euros a day to keep them in the camp in Lampedusa. Now the mayors in several other dying villages in the region are doing the same thing. For a copy of some articles about this initiative contact ACHR. Here is a link to the documentary about Acquaformosa.

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