Helping in Myanmar

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Ella Gudwin was among the first U.S. aid workers to land in Myanmar in May to coordinate humanitarian assistance for some of the 2.4 million people impacted by Cyclone Nargis. She arrived in the city of Yangon through the AmeriCares program a week after the storm hit.

“Access issues were a serious challenge, but so were basic logistics,” Gudwin said. “A major natural disaster had not struck Myanmar for over 100 years. The country had no living memory of such devastation, yet alone practiced emergency systems … Our goal was to help survivors regardless of the politics. Each day the rules changed, so we adapted.”

Gudwin negotiated with government representatives and secured permission to deliver a 15-ton airlift of medicines and medical supplies.

“We knew that medicines from the World Health Organization were making it to damaged but functioning hospitals in the Irrawaddy Delta, but they weren’t getting to villages in remote areas,” Gudwin said. “So we focused there; on equipping mobile teams of Burmese doctors and nurses with medicines and supplies to treat as many as a hundred people a day … Out in the delta it was really bad. Imagine if this kind of storm struck Malibu, and one month later dead bodies, your neighbors, were still floating in the lagoon.”

Gudwin described one effort at a monastery where three monks and a handful of novices lived. The roof had ripped off the monastery and monsoon rains poured in every morning. Despite their own problems, the monastery residents, with help from neighbors, still spent each morning cooking for people who were sick or injured in nearby villages.

“Given that so few foreigners had been allowed to travel in the delta, they were pretty surprised to see us,” Gudwin said. “We brought sacks of rice and other food, candles and waterproof tarpaulins. The abbot, the elder monk, offered me a receipt on a scrap of paper, detailing each item we had given them. I’ve kept it to remember the incredible resolve and compassion I saw that day.”

Gudwin first traveled to Myanmar in 2001 and studied the country’s economic development challenges as a student at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies, where she earned a master’s degree with distinction in international economics and Southeast Asia studies.

Gudwin, the daughter of longtime Malibu residents Alan and Rachel Roderick Jones, grew up in the area. She attended Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, Viewpoint and Crossroads. Gudwin lives with her husband Peter in Connecticut.

AmeriCares continues to assist with the Myanmar recovery and is responding to emergency needs of people affected by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. To learn more, go to www.americares.org.