Agencies seek to protect cyclone orphans

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Vu Tien Hong/ Associated Press Writer/ Myanmar July 14, 2008 (Appeared in the International Herald Tribune and the Huffington Post among others)

Twe Zin Win holding her sister/ Photo: AP

Twe Zin Win holding her sister/ Photo: AP

TOE, Myanmar (AP) _ Now, 12-year-old Twe Zin Win must try to play the role of mother. Every night, she lulls her little twin sisters to sleep with a soothing lullaby their mother once sang to them before the storm swept away her parents forever.

“Every night I dream about them coming back,” says Twe Zin Win, huddled in a tiny thatch hut the orphans share with grandparents, who eke out a hand-to-mouth existence while she cares for her siblings rather than going to school.

The three children are among a still unknown number of orphans coping with hardships – physical and mental – more than two months after Cyclone Nargis raged through Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta, leaving a trail of flattened villages and broken lives.

In an impoverished, military-ruled country with a threadbare social safety net, aid workers are also warning that these orphans of the storm are targets of exploitation, including recruitment into Myanmar’s army which has been accused by the U.N., the U.S. and human rights groups of inducting thousands of child soldiers.

“As I have seen from many other countries, including those in Asia and Africa, being orphans simply increases their vulnerability to becoming child soldiers, forced laborers, being trafficked or involved in sex work,” says Ashley Clements, a spokesman for the U.S.-based aid group World Vision.

Because of such fears, agencies like World Vision working in the cyclone-devastated region are advocating placement of orphans with surviving relatives, like the grandparents in Twe Zin Win’s case, rather than in orphanages.

“The goal is to put in place a mechanism to protect children from neglect, violence, abuse and exploitation,” says a statement from the U.N. Children’s Fund, which is supporting 51, community-based “child-friendly spaces” to provide education, recreation and other aid to children storm survivors, including orphans.

But orphans like Twe Zin Win have so far had access to neither help nor games from foreign aid groups or Myanmar government agencies.

“Every day my grandmother and I cook for them, wash their clothes, play with them, give them showers and send them to bed,” she says of her tasks as a full-time keeper of the 2-year-old siblings, which have forced her to drop out of school.

A few miles (kilometers) away in Thome Gwe village, another 12-year-old girl, Su Myat Swe Yu, remains traumatized by the loss of her parents, a brother, sister and three close relatives on one disastrous night. She and two brothers who also were spared now struggle for survival with their grandfather, a rice farmer who lost his house and livestock “everything we owned,” he said to the cyclone.

Both families have been approached by strangers from urban areas offering to adopt the children and both have refused.

“I don’t want to give them away. They are my son’s children. I have also heard stories about children being bought and sold. My only goal in life now is taking care of my grandchildren,” said Su Myat Swe Yu’s grandfather, Khim Maung Than.

To deter child trafficking, the government has forbidden adoption of storm orphans. While there have been no reports of child survivors being forced into the military, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch last year detailed the recruitment of thousands of boys as young as 10 to fill shortages in army ranks.

These and similar accusations have been denied by the regime, which says it is trying to stop all human trafficking.

State media said that in mid-June authorities rescued 80 women and children, all cyclone victims, from traffickers scheming to smuggle them into a neighboring country, apparently Thailand.

Disguised as aid workers, the traffickers reportedly took the survivors from the Irrawaddy Delta, where most of the storm’s nearly 140,000 dead or missing had lived.

International aid agencies estimate about half the 84,500 officially listed as dead were youngsters but only partial information has been collected on the number of orphans as the Department of Social Welfare and foreign groups continue tracing victims.

UNICEF spokesman Zafrin Chowdhury said the agency has identified 428 separated and unaccompanied children among survivors by the end of June. Clements said that in one village, three out of 10 children he spoke to had lost their parents.

“I don’t think this number represents the whole picture, but I have been to different villages in the delta, where a lot of children have lost their fathers, mothers or both,” Clements said.

In a country with one of the world’s worst health care systems and few social services, Myanmar’s government orphanages offer minimal care, and the regime, which exercises tight control over the population, restricts and sometimes punishes private humanitarian efforts.

The one saving grace is an abiding tradition of the closely knit, extended family in which orphans like Twe Zin Win and her sisters are lovingly taken into the homes of relatives.

“My lost daughter has left me her children and I will try to take care of them,” said Twe Zin Win’s grandmother. And in turn the 12-year-old sacrifices to help her sisters.

“Usually when I sing the song that my mother used to sing they fall asleep more easily,” she says. “The song starts with ‘Oh my children, fall into sleep. Whoever you will become, you must always be brave.’ At night they only sleep if I sing that song.”

Officer struggles to balance family and military life

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hong Tien Vu/ University of Kansas/ Fall 2009

FT. LEAVENWORTH, Kan. _ For Maj. Mark Cheatham, the hardest part of being a soldier is saying goodbye to his wife, Stacy Cheatham, and their two kids. Whenever he gets ready for his next deployment, Ms. Cheatham worries that her husband might never see her and the kids again.

“I want to talk to her, but she would cry all night,” said Cheatham, 35. “I know she is scared that I will never come back.”

So he writes.

He writes her letters about what he has prepared for them so they can move on in their lives without him, where he wants to be buried and what he wants her to do after his death. He seals the letters and asks Ms. Cheatham to open it only if she hears bad news. He has been deployed twice; two letters have been written.

Luckily, none of them has been opened. Each time he came home, he tore them up, sighing with relief.

Military life has placed countless strains on marriages of soldiers like Cheatham. Distance, loneliness and the fear of danger are most common troubles for separated couples. In addition, recent studies have found that enduring conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and frequent deployments have caused even more serious problems for military families, such as heightened divorce rate and various forms of mental stresses among family members.

According to the findings, roughly 20 percent of active-duty members in the military considered separation a primary stressor in their family lives. So far, the Cheathams have managed to weather all of those strains. But it hasn’t been easy, the young officer admitted. Being separated from one another is, perhaps, the biggest challenge in their 10-year marriage.

“I missed them terribly, especially, at Christmas or Thanksgiving,” Cheatham said. “I’d sit there imagining the kids opening their gifts and me and my wife looking at them.”

Maj. Eric Johnson, also at Leavenworth, said that during his year-long deployment to Iraq he cried more than he had ever done before.

Leaving his fiancé thousands of miles away in Richmond, Va., Johnson went to battle in Iraq. The couple talked on the camera phone every week.

“When I saw her I cried, she cried. I missed her and she feared that I wouldn’t come back,” Johnson said. “Dealing with those feelings is really hard.”

Apart from the loneliness they felt in those holidays, the dangers soldiers face in their combat scare them the most. Cheatham recalled the day when his unit in Iraq was under attack. The officer survived, but the worries he had for his wife and the kids filled his mind.

“I thought about my wife. I thought about my kids such as what if I was injured or what if I was killed, what would happen to my family,” he said.

Cheatham called home. However, he had to refrain from telling them what he had been through. It’s the military confidentiality.

“I could only talk to them to let them know that I was alive. That was it,” he said.

Lack of sharing feelings and family responsibilities for a long period of time often pushes young couples apart. Psychologists say that for military families, frequent separation could result in the worst: breaking them up.

The break-up rate in military marriages increased in direct proportion to the time young officers deploy, according to official figures. Divorce among active-duty soldiers in 2008 was 3.5 percent, up from 3.3 percent a year earlier. Among Marines, the rate was 3.7 percent, up from 3.3 percent.

Some 13,000 couples with at least one military partner broke up last year, psychologists say. Many others are struggling to deal with mental distress.

Fulfilling parental responsibilities is another problem for frequently deployed officers. A study recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics shows that one-third of military children who have a parent deployed in a war zone are at “high risk” for psychological problems. The rate is well above the national level. Across the country only one out of 10 children might face similar strains.

For Cheatham, the parental instinct is telling him that his 12-year-old son needs him when the boy is growing into the teenage years. The father is, nevertheless, expecting another deployment next year after he finishes his training at the garrison.

“I think he needs me now more than he did before,” Cheatham said. “He’d have lots of questions to ask his dad, but I am not going to be there to answer him.”

This time, Cheatham has a different preparation. He plans to talk to his soon-to-be-13-year-old son about the deployment and that the fierce battle might take him away forever. He says he has the confidence that the boy is strong enough to take it.

“I am gonna be realistic. I know he will play the man’s role in the family while I am away,” Cheatham said. “If something happened to me I want him to take care of his mother and sister.”

The plan, as usual, will still include a letter to his beloved family that he will put in the same place. Yet the officer holds a strong hope that he will still have another chance to tear it up himself.

Wedding industry prospers in hard times

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hong Tien Vu/ University of Kansas/ December 3, 2009 (Appeared in The University Daily Kansan)

LAWRENCE, Kan._ Jessica Wenberg did not plan to get married this soon.

Money problems have forced Wenberg and her fiancé to move in together and to marry more quickly than they expected.

“It’s a little rushed, but in this difficult time, we just feel like we need to support each other more,” said Wenberg, 28, an elementary school teacher. “And why not now?”

The decision to tie the knot made by hundreds of other couples like Wenberg and her fiancé have helped to boost the wedding industry in Lawrence, which some companies say is still thriving despite widespread economic uncertainty.

Marissa Garrison, a tuxedo consultant at Savvi Formal Wear, 815 Massachusetts St., said the company had been swamped with orders since spring, prompting it to recruit more employees.

“It is really crazy,” Garrison said. “We did not expect to have weddings in the fall, but people keep coming in.”

Garrison recalled the chaos last June when she and three other staff members handled 26 weddings in one weekend.

“I was running back and forth to make sure that everyone had a chance to try their tuxedos on,” she said.

Savvi has had about 300 tuxedo orders this year as compared to about 200 last year, according to company figures. On average, Garrison said, one customer would need 15 tuxedos for a wedding. Since early summer, Garrison and other company staff members have had to work an extra day every week to meet the increased demand.

Garrison’s company has planned to expand the business to selling more bridal gowns.

“We didn’t think the economy would support it, but we’ve got two cabinets full of orders,” she said.

Blooming businesses

Catering, music services and flower shops in the city also reported a surge in the number of customers this year.

Cary Engle of Englewood Florist, 1101 Massachusetts St., said orders for flowers have doubled since the beginning of 2009. He attributed this increase to more wedding orders.

For DJ Gary Myers, 2009 was a good year for business. He hasn’t always had this luck. He quit his job in October 2008 to start his own DJ service, which he said was his “lifetime passion.” In the beginning, Meyer would check his e-mail first thing every morning to see if he had any new orders. But nothing came through.

“I had put myself under the gun,” said Myers, 27, who is the father of two children. “Things would have been really bad if it hadn’t worked out.”

But as soon as April hit, orders for wedding music began to flood in, quickly filling up his weekend schedules.

“I was like, there you go. You’ve got booked,” he said.

When the traditional wedding season arrived with summer, Meyers even had to turn down potential clients because of his full schedule.

Soon after, he decided to expand his business by investing in more music and equipment. Myers now works with two other DJs and has worked in several cities in Kansas and other neighboring states.

No eloping from hard times

While some shops flourish, others in Lawrence continue to struggle.

Along Massachusetts Street, the city’s business hub, shops and offices are still shutting down, leaving empty spaces and making traces of the economic crisis more visible. Meanwhile, surviving companies were struggling to make ends meet.

On a hot August afternoon at the beginning of the back-to-school season, Morgan Madison, owner of Eccentricity, a fashion shop in downtown Lawrence, was running back and forth to show her customers a new collection of her fashion products. Madison was so busy because she was short-staffed; she had to lay off two of her four employees.

“Because of the economy, people don’t want to spend too much on trendy clothes,” said Madison, 28. “We’ve had to cut back quite a bit.”

Like everywhere else around the world, Lawrence has been hit hard by the financial downturn. The city’s unemployment rate reached 6.4 percent in July, the highest in the last 10 years. Although it is still relatively low in comparison to the national rate, the recession has taken its toll on people’s incomes and the businesses that supported the college town of 91,000 people.

Even in the thriving wedding industry, the effect of the recession can be felt. Businesses who want to keep their clientele must still remain sensitive to the fact that money is tight for their customers.

Savvi has sold tuxedos on sale for $20 or $30. The tuxedos were originally priced between $250 and $2,000. Engle Florist did not see a double of revenues while the orders are as twice as they were before. And Liberty, the catering service provider, has also lowered its prices.

“Our prices for the service went down,” said Nesta Wilson of Liberty. “But people give decent tips too.”

Vietnam might ban small-chested from driving

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Vu Tien Hong/AP Writer/ Hanoi, October 28, 2008 (Appeared in the Boston Globe and The Guardian among others)

Motorbikes account for more than 90 percent of the vehicles on Vietnam’s chaotic roads, which are among the world’s most dangerous./ AP Photo: Chitose Suzuki

Motorbikes account for more than 90 percent of the vehicles on Vietnam’s chaotic roads, which are among the world’s most dangerous./ AP Photo: Chitose Suzuki

HANOI, Vietnam—Vietnam is considering banning small-chested drivers from its roads — a proposal that has provoked widespread disbelief in this nation of slight people.

The Ministry of Health recently recommended that people whose chests measure fewer than 28 inches (72 centimeters) would be prohibited from driving motorbikes — as would those who are too short or too thin.

The proposal is part of an exhaustive list of new criteria the ministry has come up with to ensure that Vietnam’s drivers are in good health. As news of the plan hit the media this week, Vietnamese expressed incredulity.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Tran Thi Phuong, 38, a Hanoi insurance agent. “It’s absurd.”

“The new proposals are very funny, but many Vietnamese people could become the victim of this joke,” said Le Quang Minh, 31, a Hanoi stockbroker. “Many Vietnamese women have small chests. I have many friends who won’t meet these criteria.”

It was unclear how the ministry established its size guidelines or why it believes that small people make bad drivers. An official there declined to comment.

The average Vietnamese man is 5 feet, 4 inches (164 centimeters) tall and weighs 121 pounds (55 kilograms). The average Vietnamese woman is 5 feet, 1 inch (155 centimeters) tall and weighs 103 pounds (47 kilograms).

Statistics on average chest size were unavailable.

The draft, which must be approved by the central government to become law, would also prohibit people from driving motorbikes if they suffer from array of health conditions like enlarged livers or sinusitis. The rules would cover the vast majority of Vietnam’s 20 million motorbikes. It would not apply to drivers of cars or trucks.

Motorbikes account for more than 90 percent of the vehicles on Vietnam’s chaotic roads, which are among the world’s most dangerous.

Nearly 13,000 road deaths were recorded last year, and Vietnam has one of the world’s highest rates per 100,000, according to the World Health Organization. The majority of accidents involve motorbikes, which many workers in the nation of 85 million need to do their jobs.

When Nguyen Van Tai, a motorbike taxi driver, heard about the proposal, he immediately had his chest measured. Much to his relief, Tai beat the chest limit by 3 inches (7 centimeters).

“A lot of people in my home village are small,” said Tai, 46. “Many in my generation were poor and suffered from malnutrition. And now the Ministry of Health wants to stop us from driving to work.”

Vietnamese bloggers have been poking fun at the plan, envisioning traffic police with tape measures eagerly pulling over female drivers to measure their chests.

“From now on, padded bras will be best-sellers,” said Bo Cu Hung, a popular Ho Chi Minh City blogger.

Newspapers were inundated with letters on Tuesday from concerned readers who worried that they wouldn’t measure up.

“I’m not heavy enough, what am I going to do?” Le Thu Huong asked in a letter to Tuoi Tre newspaper. “And what about people whose chests are small? Most of them are too poor to afford breast implants!”

Cyclone-battered fisheries worsen Myanmar’s pain

December 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Vu Tien Hong/ Associated Press Writer/ Myanmar, July 24, 2008 (Appeared in the Washington Post and LA Times among others)

Tin Tin Latt and her kids in front of her thatch. AP Photo

Tin Tin Latt and her kids in front of her thatch. AP Photo

YAY TWIN GONE, Myanmar (AP) _ No matter how much she loved the river and sea that once provided her family’s daily food, Tin Tin Latt now just wants to stay away from the water that widowed her, killed two of her children and destroyed the family’s livelihood.

Tin Tin Latt is among thousands of widows of fishermen in Myanmar’s cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta who have been forced to become breadwinners without land to farm or the means to earn money from the sea.

Cyclone Nargis, which struck in early May, killed 84,500 people and left 54,000 missing, according to the ruling junta, in the worst natural disaster in Myanmar’s modern history and the world’s fifth deadliest in the past 40 years. Of the dead, 27,000 were fishermen, the regime says, although aid workers believe the actual number is far higher.

The U.N. food agency says more than 100,000 fishermen have been affected and some 50,000 acres of fish ponds destroyed.

The storm also destroyed boats, nets, jetties and processing plants, crippling a top export revenue earner in one of the world’s poorest nations. Last year, Myanmar exported some 350,000 tons of seafood to European and Asian countries, much of it from the vast delta with its long coastline and spider web of rivers.

The Myanmar government says it plans to build more than 9,000 boats and provide fishing nets to speed revival of the industry.

“We have started distribution to help those fishermen to regain their livelihoods,” said Saw Lah Paw Wah, assistant director of Myanmar’s Fisheries Department.

But even if those tools eventually make their way to fishing families, many no longer have the hands to do the job.

“In fishing families, there is a tendency for the men to be the providers. In the event that fishermen are killed, their families are in a far more difficult position than farming families,” said Steve Marshall, the U.N. International Labor Organization representative in Myanmar.

This leaves families like Tin Tin Latt’s with a great burden and an uncertain future. Some will have to wait until their surviving children grow up before they can take up their traditional occupation.

“I am afraid my only son will become a fisherman his whole life, following my husband,” said the 33-year-old widow. “I don’t want him to be killed by a storm like his father.”

The destruction wrought by Nargis also destroyed many jobs in the fishing industry.

Marshall’s organization and other agencies plan a 12-month project to offer 25,000 delta people jobs building a transport system linking jetties, markets and farms.

But agencies say they lack the funds to cover everyone affected. Two of Tin Tin Latt’s three surviving children are under the age of 3, and it’s hard to find work for women that generates money while leaving time to care for children, aid workers say.

More than 2 1/2 months after the cyclone struck, Tin Tin Latt’s family depends on meager rice handouts from a local aid organization, and her husband’s fishing nets lie empty. Rice and fish form the bulk of diets in Myanmar.

The situation for her and thousands of others in the delta still hangs in the balance, although villagers are quickly rebuilding their simple shacks and international aid workers, once barred from the region, offer additional assistance.

In the first full assessment of the disaster, the U.N., Myanmar government and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, this week warned of a second emergency unless $1 billion is forthcoming over the next three years from international donors.

It said 450,000 homes were destroyed, while 4,000 schools and 75 percent of health facilities were damaged.

“The worst of the crisis is over but we are still in a state of emergency. People live in a very precarious condition now. If we fail to sustain the recovery efforts, they may face a second emergency,” said Puji Pujiono, a member of the ASEAN assessment team, citing shelter, water, sanitation and food as key priorities.

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization has appealed for $33.5 million, saying 75 percent of farmers in the country’s main food-producing region lack sufficient seed, with little time left before the end of the planting season in August.

The Rome-based agency says more than 50,000 small-scale farming households and 99,000 landless rural households need immediate help.

When interviewed, Tin Tin Latt said she had only enough rice for six days and didn’t know if her children would have anything to eat after that. Although afraid, she said she had no choice but to send her 15-year-old son to learn how to handle a boat at sea.

“I wish I could move deeper inland, and find a new way to raise my kids rather than let my son become a fisherman,” she said as she dissolved into tears. “Every morning, when he goes aboard the boat, I pray for him not to be taken away as happened to my beloved husband.”

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