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Hope for the earthquake orphans

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Nearly a year ago, on Boxing Day 2003, the Iranian city of Bam was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake which killed an estimated 50,000. Since the disaster, one Guernsey couple have been working to build hope from the rubble, as Ann Chadwick reports

Nearly a year ago, on Boxing Day 2003, the Iranian city of Bam was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake which killed an estimated 50,000. Since the disaster, one Guernsey couple have been working to build hope from the rubble, as Ann Chadwick reports WHILE her brother Ali helped to pull bodies from the debris of the Bam earthquake Shifteh Tavakoli was half-a-world away planning her wedding in Guernsey to David Honey.

The distance and frustration of being away from her family in Iran at such a time were heart-wrenching.

Three of her cousins were killed.

'My brother, Ali, had to pull every member of his wife's family out of the rubble,' Shifteh told me when I first met her back in February. Ali and his wife went on to adopt their orphaned niece, Samaneh.

The extent of the desolation was massive. Children screamed at Ali to help get their families out of the rubble. But thousands were never rescued, with many youngsters left alone. Shifteh and David were determined to mark their married life with hope despite the heartache.

Along with Shifteh's sisters, they established a grassroots charity called Action for Orphans. When we met recently, Shifteh had just returned from visiting the project in Iran.

'They've established routines for the home: school, meal times, play times, homework and outside activities,' she said.

But one story she told me brought home the fact that the children are still suffering from their loss.

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Her sister-in-law, Roya, decided that as the youngsters had lost all their personal things in the quake they needed something more than just a bed and a cupboard. They all get 20p a week pocket money, so she bought them white, plastic polar bear moneyboxes in which to save it.

They'd had them for a few weeks by the time Shifteh visited and most had kept them in their plastic bags.

'When I gave the children a hug at bedtime, there was all this crunching noise,' she said.

'They were too shy to show me, but they take the moneyboxes to bed with them. Instead of putting money in them, they were cuddling them, still in their plastic wrapping. They really treasured and valued everything, even little plastic polar bears. Both the boys and girls cuddle these to death.'

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For Shifteh it was very worthwhile visiting the orphans and seeing

how their futures had suddenly changed for the better.

'These children had spent almost the whole year in various institutions. They came to us with shaved heads, owning only what they had on. They were quite institutionalised already, even though some were sent to villages; they didn't have any school materials, a second pair of clothes or a warm jacket and the temperature gets below zero some days.

'Now they all go to good schools and, in just a few weeks, the progress is significant. They already blend in like a family, they look after each other at school like siblings. You can see the change just from their smiles.'

But they need the support to continue. They have lost everything and need security more than anything, she said.

'When we got them, one of the five-year-olds, Hussein, had an eating disorder: he couldn't keep his food down. He would eat a lot but then immediately throw it up.

It must have been psychological. He was buried for three days in the earthquake.'

Five-year-old Akert still has major emotional problems.

'She relates beautifully to my brother, but she gets very angry very quickly,' said Shifteh. 'Her early drawings were of the corpses of her sister and her little brother; she acts their deaths out.'

Many specialists have volunteered to help the children with counselling and to provide guidance to the full-time staff. The children's insecurity is tangible.

'Originally, when they were going to school, they wouldn't leave their bags; they carried them with them everywhere they went. They were so worried to lose their things.'

The children's stories paint intensely sad and lonely images. But Shifteh is positive. She said they were growing in confidence and general well-being.

'The head teacher is so proud; he sees a 200% improvement in all of his children,' she said.The grassroots charity finally set up its first orphanage after raising £50,000, but the team is still a long way off its original target of £150,000. In the short term it desperately needs a second-hand minibus to take the children to school, then another £10,000 for that. And the costs of course are continuous.

The charity has pledged to help the children until they are 18. And it is determined to build another orphanage for the girls. It employs care workers and cleaners and relies on the voluntary efforts of teachers, dentists, doctors and psychiatrists.

'How they saw their little brothers and sisters killed. How the walls came down on them. Looking after children who aren't traumatised is difficult enough. So these children really are challenges.'

It hasn't been easy since they took custody of the first group of children. There are no official organisations around in Iran to help such charities. In fact, there were a lot of challenges to overcome before they even got started.

When Ali and Roya went to collect from Bam the first group of 20 children for their orphanage, they ended up spending three weeks tracking them down.

The government had identified these children in need and yet they were nowhere to be found.

'They had farmed the children out to distant relatives, a lot of whom were ill-equipped to look after themselves, let alone a child,' said David.

Due to segregation of the sexes in the country, the charity asked for just girls to be in the first home and for an all-female staff. But the group ended up as mostly boys, with four girls.

Instead of turning any away, Ali and Roya took the girls into their own home and made the orphanage just for the boys. They all have duties in the home, which has a rota for chores, or helping with meals; they take it in turns.

'There's a lot of love and discipline,' said Shifteh. 'They used to call such places centres, but now they say we are home. This in itself is different. They call Roya and Ali mum and dad, if they wish to. So they always know there's someone watching over them.'All the money raised goes directly to helping the children. And David said they needed the help now. Even the smallest gesture helps.

Their youngest donor is a seven-year-old, who is sponsoring a girl the same age as herself with her monthly pocket money. Fifteen pounds a month pays for her education.

In Iran, the local people do what they can too.

'One knocked on the door of my brother and he hardly had anything for himself,' said Shifteh. 'But he brought five potatoes and six oranges. People help even when they themselves have very little.'

Shifteh and David met while they were both working in London and settled in Guernsey almost five years ago. She is a director of O-so Ltd and he is a director of Opta Enterprises.

They know that Christmas is a bad time to ask any community for money but say that these are children who have lost their worlds and are trying to put them back together.

Shifteh was scheduled to appear on Breakfast BBC news this morning to help promote the cause, after a crew flew out to Bam in November to meet her and others doing reconstruction work.

'You can't help the lives of 100% of the needy,' said David. 'But you can help a few lives by 100%. You can make a real difference to individuals. We feel quite proud and positive about the young lives we have changed already for the better.'

In the face of such desolation, these children clearly need all the care they can get. Maybe next year, they will take the plastic off their moneyboxes and feel that little bit safer.

* If you want to donate to Action for Orphans (reg. charity 1103939), visit www.actionfororphans.com or telephone 020 8870 0387 for details.

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