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Helping tsunami victims in India
Helping tsunami victims in India

On New Year's Day the call came: "How soon can you get to India?" Like millions worldwide, John Stephens MIM '03 had followed the tsunami's devastation on television. A temporary employee of Mercy Corps, Stephens had vacationed in India and still had a current visa. Although he and his wife had a toddler and a second baby on the way, this mission meshed with his life's calling.

"I've always wanted an international career where I could live and work with communities overseas to improve conditions for the people there," Stephens explains.

Standing in the southeastern fishing village of Pondicherry, shell-shocked locals showed Stephens the fallout from the 30-foot wall of water that decimated their town. Rows of homes along the beach were crushed as though a bulldozer cut them in half. The wave tossed 20-foot-long boats into the center of town, where they blocked roadways or were wedged against trees.

Stephens, his colleagues, and India's Disaster Mitigation Institute built temporary housing and distributed drinking water, food, and cooking utensils to villages within a 200-kilometer stretch south of Chennai.

Agricultural communities were also hit hard, as tsunami waters traveled more than a mile inland and saturated crops with salt water and silt. Here, Stephens witnessed profound transformations. In an effort to drain the fields, crews of men from different religions and every social caste came together to dig giant canals.

"It was amazing to watch people who normally won't interact with each other work side-by-side. In a short amount of time you could see positive changes taking place, not only on the land but with the building of a new community."

While in India, a permanent position at Mercy Corps became available and Stephens interviewed for it over the phone. He got the job and flew home to his new role as the assistant program officer for South Asia. Stephens now facilitates communication with field offices in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Eventually his work will take him to these countries, where he will further his firsthand experience helping people overseas. –Kelli Fields