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Indonesian, American Girls Forge Friendship After Tsunami


A child survivor of the Indian Ocean tsunami and a girl from the United States who reached out to its victims have met three-and-a-half years after the disaster. The two girls exchanged letters that become a symbol of the aid relationship between the U.S. and Indonesia's Aceh province. As Chad Bouchard reports, the girls' meeting comes as concerns rise about future international assistance in Aceh.

Surrounded by snapping cameras and inundated with journalists' questions, an 11-year-old Acehnese girl wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf appears a little overwhelmed.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami destroyed Nada Luthfiyyah's small town near the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Her parents and two brothers were among the 160,000 people who died in the disaster.

Three-and-a-half years later, she is meeting a girl from the United States who offered help the tsunami survivors.

Maggie Hamilton's classmates in the state of Michigan decided to make and sell bracelets to raise money for victims.

Maggie, who was nine years old at the time, wrote a letter to survivors expressing condolences for the disaster and offering support.

Nada was selected from her class in Aceh to respond with a letter of thanks.

She says she is very happy to meet Maggie for the first time, and she almost can not believe it is really her.

The two girls' connection was orchestrated by the Indonesian government, and used as a symbol of the two countries' aid relationship in the aftermath of the disaster.

Their letters have been quoted by diplomats and heads of state at the White House.

Maggie, who is visiting Indonesia with her family, says she did not expect her letter to draw so much attention. But, she says, the experience helped make her more active in volunteer work and in her own community.

"I actually did the bracelets and the letter first, and then after that, the next year when Hurricane Katrina hit [in the U.S.], I actually raised like 200 something dollars and sent that to them, and I've been volunteering at a nursing home. I just like to help people now after all that happened," Maggie said.

Nada and the Hamilton family met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and toured Aceh and other parts of the country.

The Hamiltons' visit comes as many international aid groups end their projects in Aceh. That is sparking concerns about employment prospects for the Acehnese.

Sean Stein, the U.S. consul general in Medan in northern Sumatra, says the loss of jobs is not having as damaging to the economy as some feared, because many of the temporary workers had been brought in from outside the province.

He says international aid money is no longer being spent exclusively on recovering from the tsunami. Instead, it is going to longer-term development projects such as improving schools and hospitals.

Stein says several projects are being handed over to the new local government.

"So while maybe six or seven months ago there was a lot of angst when people looked at the magnitude of the task, when we look at the amount of progress that has been made I think that the concern is much, much less. … I think on balance that's going to be a relatively manageable issue," Stein said.

Juanda Djamal is the spokesman for Indonesia's tsunami reconstruction agency, known as the BRR.

"We're optimistic that the local government has the capacity to continue the reconstruction and rehabilitation program," Djamal said. "They already have got an agenda for new development in the future."

Officials say there is still work left do in securing peace in Aceh. The region was ravaged by 30 years of civil war; after the tsunami, the government and the rebels reached a peace agreement.

Juanda says the meeting of the two girls serves as a symbol of the informal relationship that will represent the international community's role in Aceh's future.

"I think what we can learn on this experience is that Nada from Aceh, I think, and also Maggie from the U.S., they are taking the initiative sharing the experience, the friendship, the knowledge and also they can support each other," Djamal said.

U.S. Embassy officials say as the two girls travel around Indonesia together, they have been able to share a few personal moments away from translators and cameras.

Maggie says she wants to learn Indonesian and hopes to have Nada visit her, perhaps next year, in Michigan.

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