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US Woman Helps Rebuild Indonesian Town


Thousands of Indonesian troops have withdrawn from Aceh province, under a peace agreement that has ended one of the world's longest civil conflicts. The impetus for an agreement was the tsunami a year ago. The people of Aceh are still struggling to recover from it.

Women in the tiny fishing village of Rumpet, which was completely devastated, are getting some unexpected help from a retired investment banker from New York City.

Today, Sara Henderson is busy with final preparations for the opening of the first balai inong, or women's center, in Aceh. Here the women of Rumpet will learn to sew, make cakes, and other skills that will help them find a livelihood. The women are very excited.

“We now have a place to meet and make plans,” says one woman. “We no longer need to go to the mosque or to the men's place. We have a place especially for women.”

“You know we're all traumatized here, but now we can learn to sew and make cakes and this will take away our sadness a little,” says another.

The men of Rumpet may be a little jealous, but they also have reason to celebrate. Sara Henderson has single-handedly raised funds to rebuild the houses destroyed by the tsunami. Now there are 41 houses standing and 30 more to come. Enough for the 71 families who survived.

A month after the tsunami, Sara was watching the news. She could not stand to see the whole province paralyzed by the tragedy and flew to Aceh with her best friend, Indonesian businesswoman Lily Kasoem. In the village of Rumpet, she found that most of the 127 survivors -- out of a community of more than 500 -- were women and children.

"The tsunami hit this village in three different directions. It hit from this direction, from that direction, and from this direction," Ms. Henderson pointed out.

Yet, she found that these people had the intense and unbreakable determination to go on living.

"All these people have lost so much,” she told us. “They woke up someplace, naked as the day they were born, and had nothing. I say to myself sometimes, ‘If it was me, I wouldn't get up the next morning.’ So I admire them, because they have such strength."

Sara then used most of her savings to start the Building Bridges to the Future Foundation. She is painfully modest about it.

“You're really going to ask me that. I've used $150,000 US.”

“And how much have you raised?” we asked. She replied, “$300,000 US.”

We asked if she considers herself a philanthropist, to which she modestly answered, “No, a human being.”

The women of Rumpet have voted to paint their center a vibrant pink. This is the first of many decisions they will make together. It's especially important in this highly devout Muslim province where most community decisions are made in the mosques after dark – a time when women are expected to stay home.

However, these Acehnese women who have survived not only natural disaster, but also 30 years of armed conflict between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh movement, are far from powerless.

The Rumpet women will work with the United Nation's Development Fund for Women and fill the modest building with their dreams.

As for Sara Henderson, she will always be an ibu, or mother, to the village. Thousands of miles from the hustle and bustle of Wall Street, Sara has found her second home.

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