The face of Christmas


It is Christmas – a time when we notice the cold beggar more acutely, and are more aware of friends who are ill, lonely or cold. We offer gestures of love and friendship, even if it's just a pint at the pub, or a photocopied arse at the office party.

We are better at Christmas. We try. So take that and enlarge it. Expand it, and your imagination, to the millions elsewhere. Because you really are capable of changing this crappy mean little world that does not really tell the truth about us as human beings.

Those words, published three years ago this week in an English newspaper, were written by Bob Geldof, a man concerned about the plight of people in Africa. He was commenting on how things had changed since November of 1984, when famine devastated Ethiopia and governments of the western world were essentially shamed into responding after images of starving Ethiopians moved pop musicians and ordinary individuals and led to the Live Aid concert and one of the biggest relief efforts of all time.

There must be a university somewhere studying public responses to disasters at different times of the year. Last year’s Boxing Day tsunami, for instance, is now estimated to have killed up to 275,000 people in a dozen countries, and devastated hundreds of thousands more. The magnitude of the disaster is hard to comprehend, so great is its size.

But people and governments were moved to donate money and to help, and as the New York Times reported last month some tsunami relief groups find themselves still with money in the bank. In fact, roughly half of the estimated $1.3 billion that Americans donated to help victims of the disaster is still available.

October’s earthquake in Pakistan, however, hasn’t captured the same public or media attention. As many as 40,000 people may have died in the Pakistan earthquake, and an estimated four million were left without shelter. There are ongoing relief efforts but a crisis in October just doesn’t seem to garner as much attention or generosity as one at Christmas.

Maybe it’s because at this time of year we are reminded to take the time to think about those less fortunate. Maybe it’s because it’s the end of the calendar year and a last chance to make a tax-deductible donation. Whatever it is, for many of us – including our governments – charity seems to be a seasonal commitment rather than a long-term commitment. As Geldof wrote in December 2002: "Two decades on, Africa’s plight is nowhere near as bad as it was. It is immeasurably worse."

Sir Bob, as he has become since his efforts to help the starving in Ethiopia (and many years removed from living in Vancouver and occasionally playing The Boot Pub), used his status as a pop musician to help focus attention on Africa. It worked for a while, but there’s very little taking place on the other side of the world seems to hold our attention for too long. For most of us, the connection with a country or continent we may never see with our own eyes is fleeting. For our governments, the connection may be even briefer.

But down the road, in Squamish, they may have hit on a formula that works. Squamish doesn’t have the profile of Geldof or Bono but the efforts of a number of people in that town have made a difference in the lives of people in Sri Lanka devastated by the tsunami.

The Squamish Humanity Village Project matched a Canadian town with the Sri Lankan town of Wanduruppuwa and may have built a relationship that will last. The idea behind the effort is a one-to-one relationship. Rather than trying to solve an entire region’s problems, Squamish adopted a single town.

In September, nine months after the tsunami, about 300 people gathered in Squamish for a dinner/auction. Proceeds from the evening – approximately $100,000 – went to the Wanduruppuwa rebuilding effort. Most of that money came from Mac Marketing Solutions, a Vancouver-based international real estate firm that donated $100 for every unit it sold during the year. But it’s not the real estate that’s key; the Squamish Humanity Village Project works because it put a human face on a global disaster.

And so far that face – the people of Wanduruppuwa – are being remembered all year round. Not just at Christmas.


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