“How are you strong?”

8 July, 2019

Maya Abed

Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow Maya Abed identifies the importance of family to a resilient community in the wake of trauma. Early in the morning, we walked to the end of the street through the quiet dusk. The rest of the team waited at the car. We nervously packed the vehicle with colorful supplies and began our long journey to Patillas. It was a big day.

Nearly two years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, signs of the destruction are still present. Empty homes scatter the area, featuring shattered windows and open roofs. The roads are a roller coaster of bumps and holes, rattling the car with every meter. Trees, all leaning in the same direction, sport torn limbs and branches. The reminders of a traumatic past dominate every twist and turn of the mountain roads, until we reach the peaceful town of Patillas.

Outside the large community center, residents eagerly line up. We take our supplies and enter the beautiful gym. The room is lined with dozens of bright red tables and balloons, welcoming everyone with a heart for change. We find our table and begin to set up a number of colorful posters. One by one, organizations and community members cover their respective tables with a variety of information. The hope and pride in the room are palpable as we look around and realize that we are all here for the same reason — to prepare for the future, aided by a wisdom gained from the past.
The leaders of Patillas had beautifully orchestrated the fair to educate the community on disaster preparedness. Among us stood an array of people, representing topics such as child safety, vaccinations, and food consumption.

“What is necessary to prepare for emergencies?”

IsraAID brought a unique contribution to the fair. Our wonderful Psychosocial Support Specialist, Jessica, offered an activity focusing on resilience. She laid out three large posters on the table, each with a simple question: “What do you do to overcome difficult moments?”, “How are you strong?”, and “What is necessary to prepare for emergencies?” Throughout the fair, community members came by to write down their responses. It was beautiful to see such questions opening the door to a range of stories and experiences that highlighted the unity and strength of Patillas.

Lucero Andujar, the IsraAID Program Coordinator in Puerto Rico, emphasized the significance of such activities: “In Puerto Rico, people discuss time in terms of Maria. Everything is pre or post Maria. For example, today would be two years post-Maria. This shows how impactful Maria was on their lives.”

I was especially moved by the resilience of the community members. Looking down at the scattered writing on the posters, I noticed a frequent response. Almost every answer related to family. Whether it was relying on family for strength or support, or making sure loved ones were cared for, it was a common thread. I looked around the room and was struck by a realization — it was one big family. The community members treated one another with the same love and respect as you would treat family members. They greeted each other with a smile and kiss on the cheek, the children respected the adults, and they all relied on one another. The unity of a strong community, moving forward together after a life-shattering event, was evident to me. At the end of the fair, we left with beaming smiles on our faces. We were proud of our contribution to the community’s preparation, feeling a part of the community itself. We had joined the family.

Maya (left) and Lucero at the community fair.
— Maya Abed, Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Puerto Rico

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean islands. The hurricane caused multiple fatalities and destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s key infrastructure: electrical, water, agricultural, and buildings and homes. IsraAID’s team in Puerto Rico has constructed a gravity water filtration system for the community of Barrio Real, trained local educators on how to provide Psychological First Aid to students, and worked to build disaster-resilient communities.

Maya is currently attending Cal State University in Long Beach, California. She is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows volunteering in Puerto Rico for summer 2019.

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