How helping in the wake of a disaster led to a career with WFP

When floods devastated her village in Lao PDR, Phetsamone didn’t think twice about joining the emergency response

Ildiko Hamos
Jan 21, 2020 · 5 min read
Children wading through waters on their way to school in Attapeu in 2018. Photo: WFP/Jake Herrle

Phetsamone Keopanya — “Mew” to her friends — recalls hours of terror, followed by days of sadness and months of hardship, when Mai, her village in Lao PDR’s southern province of Attapeu, was wiped away by a flood.

“23 July 2018 changed my life,” she says.

A dam upstream in the Xe Pian river burst that day, taking with it practically six villages, releasing the equivalent of two million Olympic-size swimming pools on them, inundating 55,000 hectares of land. A national emergency was declared.

Makeshift shelters in an Attapeu refugee camp. Photo: WFP/Jake Herrle

The World Food Programme (WFP) has been working in Laos, a country of 6.5 million, since 1976, expanding its programmes in tandem with the country’s needs. School feeding is currently the largest area of engagement, but WFP also helps build up the resilience of communities to climate change. This includes finding ways of getting villagers through the ‘lean’ season with the skills to establish secure livelihoods, creating a boost for local infrastructure.

Mew is a proud staff member of WFP today. Photo: WFP/Ildiko Hamos

Drought and floods are projected to become more unpredictable in coming years, so emergency response remains an important part of WFP’s work. In fact, it was through the July 2018 emergency that Mew first came in contact with WFP. She helped as a volunteer, distributing emergency food rations to community members in the camp. WFP staff members were impressed by her efforts.

Tweet by WFP’s Country Director for Laos, Jan Delbaere, in August 2019

“I knew one of the ladies working for WFP, and she made me aware that the organization was looking for Community Facilitators in Sanamxay, my home district,” says Mew. “I applied, passed the test, and found myself working there in December 2018.”

She remembers the floods vividly. “It had been raining hard for several days, and we saw that the water was rising,” she says. “My parents, brother and I were living in a house together. We thought it would be safer to take a few important belongings and go to the school in our village — a tall building with two floors.”

After a while at the school, a little before 8 pm, the family decided to go and pick up additional clothes since it seemed their sojourn would take longer than expected. The waters were not retreating. They had just started walking when, suddenly, water gushed towards them.

Within a few moments, it reached up to their thighs, but then the current got even stronger. Motorbikes were swept away and the water covered cars and yards. Frightened, the family ran back to the school and climbed up onto its roof. Other villagers were clamouring to escape too. The electricity got cut off. Everything was shrouded in darkness.

‘We now know that it’s best to plant our own vegetables in order to be sure to eat pesticide-free’

Mew describes being “up there on the roof of the school, with about 50 families in the pitch black, listening to the sounds of people screaming, trapped inside their houses by the water, and the screeching of appliances, cupboards and cars toppling over into the flood masses”.

“I remember wondering where all this water had come from,” she says. “It had stopped raining a few hours earlier.”

For 14 hours on the roof of the school, no one was able to sleep. The air was filled with the cries of people fearing for lost family members.

The following morning was sunny and warm, but dead silent save for the occasional moans of one or another villager atop the school’s roof. At around 10 am, Mew became aware of sounds. Lao Army boats were moving into the village, first dealing out sticky rice and meatballs, then ushering villagers onto the boats.

The boats took them to Hatnyao camp, a temporary shelter with people crammed into a closed space. There were not enough tents, so people tried to shield themselves from the sun with clothes. Tin-sheet shelters were constructed quickly. This is where the family of four spent the next months: in a shelter of 3 x 4 metres.

The sun beat down relentlessly, turning the inside of the room into a furnace. Tent by tent, a sprawling refugee camp evolved for thousands of people displaced by the floods. All around Laos, Hatnyao and another camp, Thammayot, became synonymous with suffering and hardship.

Mew, front row in a white shirt, with WFP raising awareness about gender-based violence in November 2019. Photo: WFP/Ildiko Hamos

The Government and the United Nations issued daily, then weekly situation reports, informing the public not only of developments such as fatatities, but also of the needs on the ground. Family hygiene kits and cooking utensils topped this list. ‘Back to School’, this year, would have to wait. UNICEF installed safe spaces for children and women. A temporary school was opened in the camp with the help of donor organizations.

Mew’s close-knit community lost 20 people to the floods. A 6-year-old boy drowned when a rescue boat capsized, says Mew. Suffering trauma, she says she did everything she could to keep herself busy. “Thinking about what happened, even today, makes my heart race and forces tears into my eyes,” she says. “I started helping where I could, in order to ensure that I keep sane. This is how I ended up volunteering for WFP’s emergency initiatives.”

Aside from the human cost, Attapeu province suffered US$35 million in damage that night.

Still, Mew loves her work. What she enjoys most is teaching children about nutrition. “I still have to learn a lot, especially in English language,” she says, smiling. “I’d like to learn more to enhance my skills.” Her newly acquired knowledge on nutrition is also helping her own family, she says. “We now know that it’s best to plant our own vegetables in order to be sure to eat pesticide-free. Often, what is sold in the market is grown with chemicals, which can be harmful to our bodies.”

Despite the many setbacks, Mew is upbeat about prospects for herself and her family. Up until a few months ago, the 23-year-old lived in the temporary shelter in the camp where many others remain. “The government warned us that we would be moving back to our old house at our own risk,” she says. “We have decided to try and start from scratch.” She adds: “Today, we are building a new house on our garden plot.”

Find out more about WFP’s work in Laos

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