By Harry Rubenstein
April 10, 2005, Updated September 13, 2012

An Israeli woman has made a huge difference in the lives of the residents of an Indian fishing village that was devastated by December’s tsunami.

Most of the 60 families in the village lost their fishing boats and all their equipment, leaving them without a way to make a living. So Talia Friedland – who was backpacking through the village at the time – rose into action. She and her traveling companion Mario Serafin spearheaded efforts to raise $12,000 which has purchased three fiberglass fishing boats for the village and other vital supplies which have enabled the fisherman to get back in the water – and to get back on their feet.

Organizations around the world quickly mobilized to help victims of last December’s tragedy in Southeast Asia. Large-scale organization like Unicef, the International Red Cross and Save the Children raised an incredible amount of money and professional support through large-scale campaigns.

In Israel, IsraAid and The National Council for Volunteerism oversaw relief missions from such organizations as Magen David Adom, ZAKA, IsraAid, the JDC, and Yad Sarah to supply goods and volunteers in Sri Lanka and India.

But amid the impressive figures and campaigns of larger organizations however, stories of individual efforts have emerged from the disaster. Stories like Friedland’s.

When the tsunami struck, Friedland and the Spanish-born Serafin were two and half months into a backpacking trip through India. She was relaxing on a beach in the southeastern fishing village of Mamallapuram and was lucky enough to outrun and stay ahead of the gargantuan wave; the rest of the village was not as fortunate.

Most of the 60 families in the village lost their fishing boats and all their equipment, leaving them without a way to make a living. After spending several weeks in the village and enjoying the villagers hospitality, Friedland and Serafin gave one family $100 of their traveling money to buy a new boat, knowing a new boat would enable three families to begin fishing again (three fishermen share each boat).

“Their gratitude was immeasurable. Their faces changed from sadness and desperation to relief and hope and their smiles returned to their faces,” she wrote in an email home.

But Talia and Mario didn’t stop there. They wanted to help more of the families from this village and nearby rebuild their lives by purchasing fishing boats and equipment for them. And they decided to stay in the region, instead of continuing on their journey.

After talking to relief workers, volunteers, chiefs of villages and fishermen, Talia and Mario learned that Mamallapuram was far better off than the villages around it. Thirteen miles away from Mamallapuram they found a few small villages that were completely decimated by the tsunami.

They focused their attention on the village of Uyyali Kuppan, a fishing village of 325 families. Uyyali Kuppan lost nine people in the tsunami and 140 houses and nearly as many fishing boats with all of their nets and fishing equipment were completely destroyed.

Over the last three months, Talia and Mario contacted family and friends in Israel, Spain and the US urging them to help. They raised over $12,000, and purchased 2000 kilos of rice, 2 engines, seven hundred kilos of fishing nets and three fiberglass fishing boats for the village. According to Friedland, they are still not finished, and are continuing to raise money for the village.

Friedland’s support was not only financial but motivational and emotional as well. The villagers had moved about a half mile inland from their old village because they feared the sea. But Talia not only slept close to the beach to show that it was safe, she also convinced the fishermen to take them out for a boat ride on one of the new boats they received. This was the first time they had ventured out to the sea since the tsunami.

“The first 10 minutes were full of stress and scared faces, but as time went by, their body language changed to happiness and excitement and we all ended up pushing each other into the water and playing like kids, feeling at home with the water.” Friedland explained.

“Two days later they went fishing. This was the first village that did so in this area. They left at sunrise and returned only when it started getting dark. With 5 boats and groups of ten people, they managed to catch 300kg of tiger prawns. All the women and young children came down to the beach to see what was going on. Again the leaders divided the catch equally between all of the families and for the first time in the last month and a half they had fish for dinner. The next morning 2 more villages went fishing as well.” Friedland continued.

“We knew that the villagers in the future could get money, but there wasn’t anyone there for emotional support. No one to ask them, ‘How are you feeling today?’ or anyone to be with them, or play with the kids,” Friedland told ISRAEL21c.

The couple spent considerable time with the children of the village. They built “educational boards” that included a map of the world with basic explanations about different countries around the world.

“They had no idea where or what Israel was,” Friedland said.

Friedland – who moved to Israel as a child with her family in 1981 from New York and was raised in the coastal city of Haifa – has only been back in Israel for two weeks and is still digesting the fact that she is back. Before her travels, Friedland studied marine biology and was previously working on a sailboat in the Caribbean. Now that she has returned from her life-altering experience she is trying to figure out what her next move is.

While Friedland ideally would like to stay in touch with the villagers, they do not have telephones or internet and do not speak English.

“Working with these people in the village changed my life. After helping people I might change what I want to do. We can learn so much from these people and their simple lifestyle. I learned so much about Indian culture and how to enjoy life with such basic things.”

And thanks to Friedland, the people of Uyyali Kuppan learned about generosity and the big heart of one beautiful Israeli.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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