Christopher Zinn, Contributor, Sydney
I had been back in Sydney for only two week after a visit to Banda Aceh when a registered letter arrived complete with floral stamps.
A letter like this usually means something of value for the recipient, so I was expecting a nice surprise. Yet, while the message inside was charming it was also unambiguous: ""We are desperate please send five thousand Australian dollars now.""
At once the tables were turned. For years I'd been a journalist and foreign correspondent whose job it was to go and report on other people's disasters like East Timor (1999) and the Papua New Guinea tsunami in 1998 and then let others do the giving.
The deal was this: I helped publicize the predicament, pricked the conscience of the developed world and let others respond by sending in their hard-earned dollars. I wasn't meant to get personally involved, but this letter changed everything.
"" I am writing this letter because I have a belief deep inside my heart that only Mr Christopher Zinn would understand our sadness so far,"" it said. Umar Ali and his wife Rusnah must have paid to get someone to type the letter in English. It included their bank details.
I had met them on the last day of my trip to Aceh. I was traveling back into town with a small group of reporters, all on an Asia Pacific Journalist Centre fellowship, when I was struck by a row of candy striped tents. We stopped for some photos when I saw a proud looking man in a bright yellow T shirt.
With Harry Bhaskara from The Jakarta Post translating he told us the sadly tragic but all too familiar story of a couple who had lost their three children, their home, their car, their savings -- in fact everything but the clothes they had been wearing. Umar Ali's smart shirt had just been donated by an Italian charity.
Umar Ali and Rusnah showed us the tent which was now their home and told us how they barely subsisted on monthly handouts of tinned sardines and dried noodles. They asked us if we knew as to when some aid might trickle down to help them rebuild their lives. We could only offer the most banal of hopes.
Something strangely moving ...
They had heard rumors of money coming through but nothing was certain. Umar Ali had been a prosperous business man in clothing and obviously was not coping well with a life of enforced idleness when he felt he could help the local economy recover.
We were moved and left them with the small amount of cash we were carrying. Even in this massive disaster area where everyone had a devastating story there was something strangely moving about the couple. Maybe it was their humility and strength and togetherness or perhaps because they were educated and middle class, which made it easier for us to relate to them rather than a fisherman or shopkeeper.
I left them my name card.
Whatever it was on the bus back to the hotel we debated if we should try and buy them a sewing machine to start up a new business. But we flew out the next morning to other stories and other controversies and all the best intentions were soon forgotten.
Soon I put a short story to air about Aceh six months after the disaster and right at the end featured Umar Ali and Rusnah. The final words in the story were along the lines that I would return in a couple of years to see how they are doing.
A short time after transmission the letter arrived. You have had all the proofs of the disaster facing us,"" it continued ... The aim of writing this letter is that I am expecting your kindness to help us (sic) some funding approximately AUD$5,000 in order to start a new business selling manufactured T-shirts, trousers, and etc.""
I played for time. I was a freelance journalist with no regular income. My wife said we could afford it but even in Australia it was a fair sum of money. I spoke to a colleague who advised me to throw the letter away, saying he often got such requests after an overseas trip. There's only so much you can do,"" he said.
Another colleague read the letter and suggested contacting friends and associates by e-mail to ask them the donate and "" share the load."". Yet another thought it would be a good idea to get sponsorship and compete in the 14-kilometer City to Surf fun run in Sydney with 60,000 other joggers.
I thought long and hard about their plea. I had met Umar Ali and Rusnah by chance and was struck by their resilience and bearing, and had no doubt their request was genuine.
They seemed to have the skills and enterprise to make a go of any ""investment"".
Many Australians had already given generously to the tsunami appeals but this was a chance to provide some modest microfinance, which could make the world of difference to just one family. My philosophy was o secure a lot of small donations and potentially build up an ongoing ""person-to-person"" program of directed investment, and not just handouts.
Real people, real need
So I sent out the e-mails and there was an amazing and immediate reaction. The news spread far and wide and people I didn't even know came back saying they wanted to donate direct. They were frustrated with giving anonymously to charities after the tsunami and then reading how long it was taking for help to get through and how much was being used up in administrative and other costs.
The notion of giving direct to someone whose story and picture you could see was a powerful one, as was the knowledge that none of the funds would be diverted to other overheads. One friend of limited means promised that when the donations reached $4,000 she would make up the rest.
The e-mail ended up at ABC radio and I was given a nationwide audience to explain about Umar Ali and his wife and my appeal to help them. One listener pledged A$1,000 that morning.
A Sydney online retailer, The RemoGeneralStore.com, got involved because they believed in what is known as "" aggregated compassion"" or a lot of people giving a little to achieve a stated goal.
Remo, who is an old friend, produced an impressive, fund-raising Give Direct T-shirt to sell and for me to wear on the big run with Umar Ali and Rusnah's picture on the back and their letter (see it at www.remogeneralstore.com/givedirect).
The global reach of his clients produced more donations as well as T-shirt sales and a lively debate as a Jakarta subscriber complained these sort of emotional appeals to help just one person were the worst thing, as they were unfair and deflected funds from the charities that really knew what to do.
It is a good point, as it is unfair to pick one family when there are so many in desperate but would the world have been a better place if I had just thrown away that letter?
I ran the City to Surf in a record time (for me) of 71 minutes and the T-shirt helped solicit more donations. So many people had been involved and inspired by the story of Umar Ali and Rusnah and yet, given the difficulty in communications, the couple had been totally unaware of it all.
It took a few weeks for all the pledges to come in and for some banking details to be cleared up but there is now A$5,000 in the Australian account I set up for them and I will be sending it to them as soon as possible, with a request they keep us posted as to what happens.
My hope now is to build on this experience and with others develop a website where we can put aggregated compassion to the test. It might feature five changing short stories from around the world of people hit by disaster who need limited funds, say up to $5,000, for a specific purpose.
The public could then make a small payment by means of a yet to be determined method and see their bucks immediately credit the account. It would be giving direct, in small amounts and by a large number of people, to deserving causes with no overheads.
And who would gather these stories? Why, journalists of course, who in the course of their working lives meet enough deserving causes and could forward their details and pictures to the website as well as writing their stories.
I was wrong when I opened that registered letter and thought it did not contain anything of value to me. It has changed my ideas about giving and what is possible and how to be a better journalist and good human at the same time. Thank you Umar Ali and Rusnah -- you sent me a true gift and I look forward to seeing how you now move on.