It was one year ago, Dec. 26, that the tsunami hit South Asia. Not very many months later, Americans were dealing with their own devastating wall of water, when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans.
For the children who survived those disasters, life since has been about loss, and learning how to start over.
And, even though they don't speak the same language, when the children of Banda Ache meet the children of New Orleans, they do tell the same story — of sorrow, struggle, and hope.
The youngest victims
Natural disasters destroyed and damaged the lives of millions this year, and perhaps no one suffered more than the children.
But amid these great tragedies, the promise of hope is evident in the story of two families from opposite sides of the globe brought together by UNICEF. The U.N. organization enabled these children touched by the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina to share their experiences with each other hoping they might find comfort.
Hurricane Katrina forced Tangela and her children to flee New Orleans and head hundreds of miles north to Meridian, Mississippi, where she watched the destruction of her hometown on television. Tangela is a single mother of Anitra, 16, Tanitra, 9, and, seven-year-old Michael.
Tangela: I went to my kids and I grabbed them and I hugged them. And I didn’t know how to explain to them or tell them that they couldn’t go back home.
The church shelter became home her and her children.
Tangela: Everyone at that shelter just was great. They took the kids to the playground and just worked with the kids constantly. And UNICEF came in and they brought a lot of material for the kids for learning.
UNICEF, as part of the first U.N. relief effort ever within the U.S., provided educational and recreational kits to the Katrina evacuees.
After several weeks the family was able to move out of that shelter when church members found an apartment for them.
Today the family is building a new life: Tangela is working at a downtown department store; older daughter, Anitra, who’s pregnant and due next month, stays at home, and younger children, Michael and Tanitra, are in new schools— their fourth this year.
Ann Curry, Dateline correspondent: You saw suffering and pain, but you saw kindness too.Tanitra: Some people are willing to give out to those who need help. And even though we suffered, those people helped us get back on track.Curry: What’s the worst that thing the hurricane did?Michael: It took my bike, it took my house, it took my toys, my games.Curry: What do you wish for now, Michael? What do you want?Michael: I wanna come back to New Orleans.Curry: You want to come back to New Orleans. You want your old life back.
Half a world away
In Banda Ache, Indonesia, ground zero for the tsunami, another family is also striving for normalcy.
To look at them at play or in class, 11-year-old Khalil and his sister Pia, 9, are almost indistinguishable from their friends and classmates.
But when the giant waves came ashore, these children were at home only about a half mile from the ocean. They were saved by a cousin.
The cousin carried them to safety but their mother, father, and older brother and sister all died— along with 130,000 others in Ache province.
For three days after the tsunami, Khalil and Pia wandered in the hillside jungle. They ended up in a U.N. refugee camp, where they were eventually found by an aunt and uncle, who have taken them into their own home.
Khalil and Pia are among the lucky children in Banda Ache. While there is rebuilding all around the province, nearly a half million people are still living in tents and temporary barracks. And while the vast majority of children are back in school, there is still an extraordinary amount of work to be done:
Lely Djuhari, UNICEF spokesperson: We are going to rebuild 200 permanent schools from scratch.
A meeting of kindred spirits
All the way from Indonesia, UNICEF brought Khalil and Pia and their family to New York during the holidays, where they met with the children of Katrina.
Curry: What did the tsunami take from you? What did the tsunami give to you?Khalil (translated): Since the tsunami, I’ve had many new experiences: a new school, new friends, a place to play soccer but I would give it all up if I could just see my father and mother and my sister and brother one more time.Curry: Why have you allowed them to come all this way from Indonesia, to come to America to meet other children who have suffered?Wardiah (translated): I thought it would bring joy to their life: to see something more than their country, their home. I know there is a lot of joy in this world. I wanted to give them the chance to make new friends, meet new people and have new experiences.
For the young victims of hurricane Katrina, meeting the victims of last year's tsunami is meaningful.
Curry: When you met these children from New Orleans who have lost their homes in the hurricane, did you feel any connection to them at all?Pia (translated): I heard about their homes being destroyed just like ours and I felt so sorry for them, they tried to hug me and introduce themselves and I wanted to be able to talk to them about it. We had the same experience, we know how sad it is to watch as your home is completely destroyed.Curry: Why did you decide that you wanted your children to meet children who had survived the tsunami?Tangela: I wanted them to see first-hand the other kids that are suffering. I felt this experience would be just the greatest thing for them.Tanitra: I had heard that the Indonesian children lost their mother and father. And is living with their auntie and uncle.Michael: They lost their home. They lost everything.Tanitra: We all are like in the same predicament and might not speak the same language, but know how each other feel.Curry: What do you wanna say to children who have suffered like you have?Tanitra: I would like to say that there’s no looking back. We gotta keep on forward.
That determination to not give up reminds us all of what it will take to rebuild.
UNICEF arranged to have these children, who lost so much this year, help light a symbol of hope—the giant crystal snowflake that shines over New York’s Fifth avenue.
Despite devastating pain, there is still a belief in a brighter future.
Tangela: A lot of people would say that we’re victims. I would like to see it as we are victors rather than victims.
In the Gulf Coast, and in Banda Ache, the rebuilding of homes and of lives will take years. Click below for "How to help" information.