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Brenau graduation speaker guiding relief efforts in Myanmar

POSTED: May 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Alison Cooper prepares for commencement ceremonies at the Georgia Mountains Center.

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If he hadn’t been speaking at Brenau University’s graduations in Gainesville this weekend, Dean R. Hirsch said he would be in Myanmar.

He is the international president of World Vision International, one of the few relief organizations that has been allowed to provide help to the Southeast Asian country after it was devastated Saturday by a cyclone that killed tens of thousands of people and left many more missing. Two million people have been left homeless, Hirsch said.

World Vision is a $2 billion-a-year global partnership and nonprofit organization that operates in some 116 countries. Last year, the Christian relief organization provided aid to 100 million people.

World Vision has been in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for the past 40 years providing relief for children. This allowed the organization’s nearly 500 staff members located in Myanmar to quickly provide help when the cyclone struck.

"We’re doing two things right now ... there’s an emergency response that will go on for the next four weeks or so but then we’re moving into long-term recovery," he said.

And the needs are varied, from providing food, water and medicine to helping rebuild.

"We are right now helping people to recover. We are making sure that children have clean water. We’re providing plastic tarpaulin so that people have plastic to sleep under at night. In addition, we are distributing rice," Hirsch said.

He said that the organization also has teams and supplies standing by in Singapore and Dubai to provide even more help. World Vision, like many relief organizations and governments from around the world, is negotiating with Myanmar’s ruling military junta to provide even more assistance.

Hirsch said World Vision wants not only to provide more emergency aid, but also provide long-term help with rebuilding homes, schools and farms.

Other assistance would include providing water filtration systems, desalinating fields ruined by a tidal wave of ocean water and even providing help for children who have lost their families.

"What we’ll do is set up child-friendly tents where children can come, and then we’ll have adults there who will run activities for these children so they can deal with the trauma they’ve just been through," Hirsch said. "Some of these children might have lost their parents; they’ve lost brothers or sisters."

He agreed that World Vision has been able to help thus far because of its decades-long presence there, but is unsure if that familiarity will convince the Myanmar government to let the group provide additional support.

"World Vision’s been there for some time. We’ve built trust. All the sudden, they have a huge disaster like this and many people want to come in," Hirsch said. "And what we’re trying to say to them is ‘The U.N. and World Vision, you know us. We’re not going to do anything that’s inappropriate and we do want to come in and help.’ ... So quiet diplomacy is taking place."

Hirsch said he has been in consultation with representatives of the United Nations to coordinate with its relief efforts, as well.

He urges that any help needs to come quickly, because diseases such as cholera and malaria will add to the problems of the devastated nation.

"If we don’t move on these things, you’re going to have children dying because they don’t have clean water," Hirsch said.

Hirsch said that anyone who wants to help the people in Myanmar can do so by going to the organization’s Web site.

After he finishes his commitment to speak at Brenau this weekend, Hirsch said he plans to go to Myanmar. There he will assess the current situation and help plan long-term relief efforts.

"But I’m glad to be here," he said. "This is a very special occasion because I’ve known Dr. (John S.) Burd for years."

Hirsch came to speak at Brenau through his friendship with Burd, immediate past president of the university. Hirsch said he and Burd attended graduate school together.

In his speech, Hirsch challenged graduates to become global citizens.

"But I do hope that we will all become people who care for the least in our world. To care for everyone in our global village, not just the people who look like us, talk like us, or have the same opportunity as us," he told graduates.

The university will confer degrees on a record 468 undergraduates this weekend, in addition to 285 graduate degrees. Friday night’s graduation was for Brenau Women’s College; other degrees will be presented at 10 this morning at the Georgia Mountains Center. The university also awarded its first fifth-year certificate in opera performance.



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