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Children to Benefit From Washington Woman's Tsunami Relief Plans

Throughout the United States there has been an outpouring of sympathy and aid for the victims of the deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean two weeks ago. Among those galvanized to action by the disaster are immigrants from the countries most affected: Indonesians, Thais, Sri Lankans, Indians. New American Voices talks with one Indonesian American who's working to help at least a few of the many, many thousands of children who have been orphaned by the killer waves.

Ambar Abbink, a slender, dark-haired woman in her early thirties, has devoted a lot of energy in the past two weeks to raising funds for the survivors of the tsunami among members of the Indonesian community in the Washington, D.C. area. Her approach is direct: she asks people to donate money that they would otherwise spend on something frivolous for themselves.

"You know, sometimes it's hard, because most people live from paycheck to paycheck," she says. "I don't want to put pressure on them, because they need a life, too. But I want to send the message, that it may be very hard to give one hundred or two hundred dollars for a donation, if you just take it out of your paycheck, but if you sacrifice something, it's easier. Like for example if you go to a restaurant twice or three times a week, then cook at home for a few weeks, and save the money that you used to spend at the restaurant to give to a relief fund for the people who lost so much."

Setting a good example, Ms Abbink asked people invited to her grandniece's first birthday celebration last week not to bring gifts, and instead donate the money. As for herself, she says she was ashamed to buy a new dress for the Indonesian community's New Year's Eve party, as she had intended. Instead, she wore an old one, and gave the money to the relief fund. Given the tragedy in Indonesia, the New Year's Eve party itself turned into a fundraising event, with $7000 collected so far and more coming in constantly from pledges given that night. Ms. Abbink, who works as a financial analyst for a major airline company, says her American colleagues have been very supportive, as well. "Actually, from my office today my boss said why don't you send an e-mail to everybody in the building, because I'm sure they'll want to contribute something," she says.

Aside from helping to raise funds for the immediate relief effort, Ambar Abbink believes that many victims of the disaster will require help over the long term. She is especially moved by the fate of children whose parents were killed by the tsunami. Accordingly, she is organizing a program to find people who would sponsor individual children, providing them with regular financial support while they are being raised by members of their extended families or their communities in Indonesia. "Thinking about their education, their health," she muses, "probably I could not bring them here, because I cannot give them what they need, but I can let local village people raise them, and we can donate money to make sure that these children get a good education, a good life. I can start with maybe five children in the beginning. I'm not going to see exactly what's going to happen with that money, but if I raise them, I want to know whether they're going to be a doctor, or politician, or whatever. I would be happy."

The impetus behind Ambar Abbink's plan to help Indonesian orphans is her own experience as the youngest of ten children, whose father died when she was eleven. She says she has her older brothers and other caring people to thank for being where she is today. Ms. Abbink studied Indonesian literature at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta, specializing in ancient manuscripts. Initially she came to the United States in 1989 on a one-year contract to work on an Indonesian exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "It's so funny, because when I was in Indonesia, I had so much conflict, knowing that the government is not open, not having many choices, as a woman," she says. "So when I came here, I felt so good that I could dream, I could have hope."

Having tasted life in the United States, Ms. Abbink says she fell into a depression when she returned to Indonesia, and resolved to immigrate for good - which she did in 1991. She found a good job teaching the Indonesian language to diplomats, military officers and World Bank officials. But then, about six years ago, she decided to change her profession. "I said to myself, I would like to have more. For example, if I had to move somewhere -- I'm lucky now, because I live in Washington, so many people in a metropolitan city, but if I move, for example to Ohio, or wherever, not many people will want to study Indonesian there. So I have to find a career that I can have anywhere. So, with my limited English, I thought accounting probably would be best for me, since I have a good head for numbers. So I taught Indonesian, and at the same time I went to school for an accounting degree," she explains.

Ms. Abbink says that she has a very full life, what with two jobs -- in addition to her accounting work for the airline, she continues to teach Indonesian evenings and on weekends -- her involvement in the activities of the Indonesian community, and her friends. Of her large extended family only one nephew is in the United States, the rest live in Jakarta, and she's thankful that they were not affected by the tsunami. But she knows that the tsunami will have a lasting impact on her own life.

"My life right now is at an intersection," she says. " I guess everybody faces that once in their life, and I think right now I'm facing it. I'm 34, still. And it seems to me that life is whatever you want it, and how you evolve it. So lately I feel like I'm called, you know. This is a good time that I want to build something," says Ambar Abbink, of embarking on her new project to enlist American sponsors to help orphans in her native Indonesia.