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One Year after the Lombok Earthquakes: Sydney Reflects on Her Deployment

Sydney with Baiq and her 17-month-old Abizar .
Baiq and 17-month-old Abizar live in Northern Lombok. Baiq shared with me “I wish for my son to always be healthy and to give back to his neighbors.” The Indonesian Red Cross provided rice and diapers for little Abizar.

Last year, Sydney Morton deployed to Lombok, Indonesia, after a series of devastating earthquakes struck the area. This week, we spoke with Sydney to hear how her perspective has changed a year later. Read on to learn how this deployment has made a lasting impact in her life.

What did you do in Lombok with the Red Cross?

I deployed from Washington, D.C. to Lombok, Indonesia, in September 2018 as a trained international disaster responder with the American Red Cross. My job was to lead communications for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). I helped tell the story of how communities were being impacted by earthquakes and aftershocks, and how the Indonesian Red Cross (locally known as Palang Merah Indonesia) was responding around the clock.

Looking back a year later, what has affected you the most?

One year later, there are many people, smiles, sounds and moments that remain close to my heart. To name a few: the smiling faces of grade schoolers playing and laughing when their school reopened; communities singing songs about “gempa” safety (gempa means earthquake in the local language); and the sound of hammers swinging in the sunrise as determined families started to rebuild.

What sticks out most and has forever changed me, is the spirit of the community. In many villages, residents came together to rebuild cornerstones of the community, like mosques and schools. Neighbors contributed supplies and long days of effort to restore these important communal spaces even before rebuilding their own homes.

Residents embodied strength and determination. One local entrepreneur I met, Fauziah, lost her shop in the earthquakes. Her family moved to a temporary shelter in the neighboring peanut fields. And yet, Fauziah restarted her business selling snacks. She said with resolve, “I will provide for my family no matter what.”

Sydney with children in Lombok, Indonesia.
Children in Lombok experienced five major earthquakes and more than 1,500 aftershocks. Through games and songs, Red Cross volunteers taught these children to take cover, listen to directions and early warning signals, and stay calm during earthquakes

What was the scariest thing you experienced? Did it change your views on the strength of the people living there?

Three days after arriving, I experienced my first major tremor. The ground started shaking below me at the Red Cross office in the bustling city of Mataram. Although my memory of running outside is blurry and dizzying, I will never forget that morning.

Traffic halted as the streets flooded with people. Teachers consoled children who fled nearby classrooms in their uniforms. Voices called out in search of friends, colleagues and loved ones. Others looked on in silence and shock.

I saw exhaustion in the eyes of residents that morning. The power shut off and phone lines were down. Community members had already experienced multiple devastating earthquakes, unfathomable damage to their homes and businesses, and hundreds of aftershocks.

When the ground settled and it was safe, I witnessed a local business owner, Suliko, tidying up her coffee cart. She boiled water and opened back up for business. Suliko’s presence and resilience seemed to bring a sense of peace and normalcy to the community around us. In awe of her, I asked how she was doing. Suliko replied, “We are tired, but have to stay strong.”

Sydney with Ifa and Lina who joined their local Community Based Action Team after the earthquakes.
Ifa (right) and Lina (left) call Central Lombok home. They decided to join their local Community Based Action team after the earthquakes. “We want to be prepared and mobilize our community,” explained Ifa.

What was the most impactful thing you witnessed?

Indonesian Red Cross volunteers put on their uniforms every day for weeks on end and truly gave their all.

These volunteers are parents, students, local professionals and community members like you and me. Many are from Lombok and were personally affected by the earthquakes. In some cases, they lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones. The situation was extremely dynamic and daunting as tremors continued for weeks.

And yet, people like Ifa bravely raised their hands to help. She trained in disaster preparedness for the first time and signed up to lead her community through this challenging time. People like Warjo drove from dawn until dusk delivering badly-needed wheelchairs to the farthest-reaching communities. I watched relief wash over the faces of community members when Warjo embraced them with warmth.

The compassion, care and commitment that local volunteers embodied made the greatest impact of all.

Indonesian Red Cross delivered wheelchairs to provide mobility – and hope to Lombok earthquake survivors.
Indonesian Red Cross delivered wheelchairs to provide mobility – and hope to Lombok earthquake survivors.