Sunday, 20 March 2016

Fiji - Stronger than Winston

When you think of Fiji, you imagine tropical beaches with crystal clear water, beautiful sunsets lined with palm trees and locals whose smile and friendly personality could light up an entire room. And this is exactly why my friend and I decided to book a girls trip to Fiji for March 2016.

What we didn't expect was for cyclone Winston to hit a week before we were due to arrive and cause mass destruction across Fiji.

After we got the green light from our travel agent that it was safe to travel as planned, we decided we wanted to use the opportunity to help out people in need. We knew there was devastation, but where do you start?

Firstly we put a call out on Facebook for donations of clothes, toiletries, school books and notepads to see what sort of response we would get. We then both sent out emails to our workplaces with a similar message.

Within a few days the responses started rolling in and to say we were overwhelmed by the generosity would be an understatement. The Brisbane community, having been through a natural disaster themselves with the Brisbane floods in 2011, know all too well the damage that mother nature can cause. We were inundated with clothes, toys, books, pencils, notepads, cash and the list goes on.

In total, we managed to take just under 50kgs of donations over with us. When we arrived at the Hilton Fiji Beach Resort & Spa we arranged to meet up with the BlueEnergy representative Akosita to discuss a visit out to a community in order to distribute our donations. BlueEnergy is the Hilton's Community Outreach Program that is committed to serving surrounding communities.

Akosita was most accommodating and managed to arrange us a private taxi driver for the day and she also offered to come with us on our community visit.

After our meeting, we decided to travel to the community of Ba, roughly an hour and a half drive away. Although this community wasn't the worst affected area of Fiji, given our time restraints, it was a great place to start.

Akosita also offered an office in the staff quarters of the hotel for us to go through all the donations we had and separate them into different piles. We agreed to take half the donations to Ba with us, and leave the other half with the hotel for them to take to the community that was hit the hardest, Rakiraki.

So a few days later, our taxi driver Mohammed arrived and off we went. First stop, the local grocery store to spend our cash donations on food and water for families in our destination community of Ba.

Our drive to Ba was one of great anticipation and excitement. We had no idea where we were heading and what to expect at the other end.

As we entered the community of Ba, Muhammed stopped off at a family home and picked up his brother in law who knew the community well. He was able to guide us to the areas that had been hit the hardest. He was also able to protect us from the people begging for help and trying to jump into our truck and take food and water.

What we saw next was truly heartbreaking. Although we were both expecting to see some damage to homes, we definitely weren't mentally prepared for the extent of the damage and the effect on living conditions.

Our first stop was a tiny little pink house where the entire back of the house had been swept away by the cyclone. This family had lost absolutely everything and all they had were each other, a sheet on the floor to sleep, a tiny table and a ceramic toilet, all in this tiny room. They had no food, no water and no electricity so they were ever so grateful to receive clothes and a food pack that would last them roughly a week. It was heart breaking, but we had to keep going.

We were then approached by a couple who realised what we were doing and begged us for food and water. They explained that although their house had survived, they were both sick and hungry and needed food. It was then that we realised that we simply couldn't help everyone and it was going to be a tough day emotionally seeing the devastation but also knowing there would be a lot of people we couldn't help.

The next house we entered was across the road, a Mother, Father, baby and Grandfather. Although their house was slightly bigger to begin with, they lost the roof and the resulting water damaged everything inside.

They had managed to save one bed for the baby to sleep in. We walked through what used to be the kitchen, through the lounge room and into the bedroom out the back which was the only room left with a roof. The roof was badly damaged and leaked every time it rained, which meant they are forever moving the bed around in order to keep the baby dry.

The pain was evident as they spoke to us and there was a huge feeling of helplessness. How do you explain to a tiny baby that there is no food or water? What do you say to people that have lost absolutely everything and are just struggling to survive and keep each other alive?  The answer is nothing. We were very silent as we took the tour with this family.

They thanked us for the food, water and clothing and as we exited the building the emotions got the better of us and we both stood there, embraced each other and broke down. It was a very sad yet beautiful moment shared between two friends who felt completely helpless. Even writing this story brings the emotions back and leaves me a weeping mess.

The next house we stumbled across was a family unit, 4 adults and 4 children, who had a roof over their heads, but no walls left in their home. As with the previous home, there was only one bed, this time occupied by an elderly man who was paralysed and could not walk. If you look closely in the photo of the house above, you can see a home made wheelchair used to move him around.

A five year old boy named Marnie caught our eye here so we stopped and handed over food and water and also clothes and some toys for the kids. One of the toys donated was a frisbee, which this little boy had never seen before. At first he was a little apprehensive to accept it, so the two of us  went into his yard and showed him how to use it. The expression on his face was a mixture of amazement and excitement all rolled into one. He had never seen anything like it. His eyes lit up and eventually we witnessed the most gorgeous smile. This smile spoke a thousand words.

He held the frisbee tight and followed us down to his neighbours place where he showed the other kids his new toy. It warms my heart knowing that such a simple item has brought so much fun and joy to people living below the poverty line.

In total, we were able to provide eight homes with food, water, clothing and toys. The more we saw, the more we understood the extent of the damage. What inspired me the most was the determination and persistence of these families. They are stronger than ever and are just doing everything they can to get their lives back on track. Although they are pained by the experience, they are happy, smiling and getting on with life. The children may not have much, but they are laughing and playing and enjoying what little they have.

The absolute highlight of the day was our last stop at a local school. As we had a lot of books, note pads, pens and crayons, we wanted to donate this to a local school. The kids welcomed us with open arms all screaming "bula" and giving us high fives. They had never seen a tourist before, as no one has really visited this community, so they were ever so excited. As soon as Akosita yelled out "photo", we were surrounded by kids laughing, screaming, smiling and all wanting to get in the picture. To see a group of kids who have absolutely nothing, but loving life to the fullest was incredibly heart warming.

It was truly a magnificent way to end a very emotional and physically difficult day. This experience will stay with us forever. Words cannot describe exactly what we saw this day and the emotions we felt, but the pictures and memories will last a life time.

We wanted to thank The Hilton Fiji Resort & Spa for their assistance in helping us achieve this goal. Particularly Akosita and Muhammed. Without the help from both of you, none of this would have been possible. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for helping us every step of the way. The Brisbane community also thanks you for taking the other half of the donations out to the community of Rakiraki.

Thank you to everyone who donated. I am also happy to report that the donations didn't stop with this trip. The staff and children at the Brisbane Boys' College have continued to bring in donations and we will soon be shipping even more donations across to Akosita at the Hilton Fiji. Thank you also for your generosity and hard work in getting these donations together.

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