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Not saving lives, just making himself more useful: Volunteering in disaster areas
02 August 2006

Dr Jeyathesan believes he is also helping himself whenever he helps others.Dr Jeyathesan believes he is also helping himself whenever he helps others.
Jakarta, Malaysia: “If you say you’re a doctor, people would think you’re rich and that’s how you can give up your time to go (to disaster areas),” Dr Jeyathesan lamented. “But I’ve been there (in Indonesia) for months and I only get paid as a volunteer and not as a doctor.”

And that is the little-known truth regarding disaster relief volunteers. No, said Dr Jeyathesan, he is not rich. And he does not want to talk about himself. He would rather this interview be about the organization for which he has been volunteering for 28 years – the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS).

And no, doctors do not only offer medical services as a volunteer. They have to do everything, just like everyone else. A volunteer does not just work in her or his area of expertise.

“There are lots of people needed in the field, from drivers to journalists and IT experts,” Dr Jeyathesan explained. “Today, in disaster relief, there are so many components. You won’t get food, support and donations if there are no journalists covering the disaster. At the same time, you also need IT. So it’s not just the doctors and truck drivers who make up the disaster relief team.”

What usually happens is that in the initial stages of disaster relief work, during the state of emergency, food, shelter and other essentials are distributed. 

Later on, other things that have a longer-term effect are distributed, and this goes into reconstruction, as the victims are helped to rebuild their lives.

Dr Jeyathesan, 38, who has done disaster relief work in Pakistan, Yogjakarta and in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, has been involved in the MRCS since he was in primary school. The MRCS is not all about marching, carrying stretchers and blood donation drives, he said. 

There are ongoing community programmes apart from the international disaster relief efforts, and volunteers cover a wide range of expertise. The MRCS is not politically driven, and neither is it religiously motivated. What it is, is purely volunteerism.

“The MRCS has been around for over 140 years,” said Dr Jeyathesan. “We do everything, from taking care of cattle, to giving training in first aid, to driving trucks and cooking ... you name it, we do it. We have journalists whom we call reporting delegates, who report to the whole world and to our donors about what is needed.

“Before anyone established disaster relief in Malaysia, we were here. We are the biggest humanitarian organization on the ground.”

He said disaster relief services are something for which one needs to be trained. The work is tough and volunteers sometimes have to sleep on hard floors, and still spend the whole of the next day helping the victims. He said the only thing they could do in facing the horror, devastation and suffering in a disaster is to laugh.

“People always wonder what is wrong with us because we are always laughing. But what else can we do? How long can we cry?” said Dr Jeyathesan with a smile.

He said he loves the challenge of trying to understand humanity and how to put a smile on the face of someone who is suffering.

“I really never think that I’m saving someone else’s life,” he said. “I always think that I’m saving my own life. I’ve just made myself more useful, that’s all. People say, ‘Why are you doing this for free? Are you crazy? Do you think people will help you in return?’

“But the answer is, yes, somebody is going to help you. You won’t know who or when it will be, but you’ll be surprised that somebody out there is going to help you. It has happened to me many times.”