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Politics Put Aside in Wake of Natural Disaster
By Karen Fanning


Many countries came to Iran's aid after a devastating and deadly earthquake on December 28, 2003. Here, a Russian rescue team searches for survivors under the rubble in the ancient city of Bam the day after the quake. (Photo: Vladimir Smolyakov/AP Wide World)
Many countries came to Iran's aid after a devastating and deadly earthquake on December 28, 2003. Here, a Russian rescue team searches for survivors under the rubble in the ancient city of Bam the day after the quake. (Photo: Vladimir Smolyakov/AP Wide World)
Just one day after a devastating earthquake leveled the ancient city of Bam, Iran, American surgeon John Wei received a phone call. The people of Iran needed his help. Four hours later, his bags were packed, and he was headed to the airport.

"There was a natural disaster; there was a humanitarian need," said Wei, who joined 57 other Boston-area trauma professionals in the relief effort. "Those of us who were able to answer that call were willing to go. And if it happened again tomorrow, we would do it again."

The December 26 quake in Iran killed 43,000 residents and left tens of thousands of others wounded. An estimated 1,000 children were orphaned. The loss of human life was staggering, the suffering, intolerable. It was not a time to let political differences get in the way.

Relations between the U.S. and Iran were severed in 1979, when 52 Americans were taken hostage from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. For the next 35 years, tensions grew, sometimes to the breaking point. But in the days following the December earthquake, the U.S. government offered emergency assistance. In a move just as extraordinary, Iran accepted.

Ordinary Americans also did their part. California construction manager Sudabeh Shoja gathered a team of earthquake experts, who spent two weeks in Iran surveying the damage. The specialists compiled a list of important projects, including updating building codes and improving infrastructure needs.

"We had a similar earthquake in a similar range in San Luis Obispo County [California] and only lost [two people,]" said Shoja. "Even that is too many, yet four days later, an earthquake hits [in Bam] and kills 43,000."

A group of 20 volunteers from Alabama, men who ranged in age from 29 to their late 70s, traveled to Iran to feed survivors. Day after day, they worked tirelessly, cooking meals and serving coffee.

Even the youngest Americans came to the rescue. In Florida, Fort Lauderdale-area students collected $400 and 10 blankets, which they donated to the Children of Persia, an organization that seeks to help Iran's needy. Similar fund raisers and donations came from schools around the nation.

After working 12-hour shifts in the emergency room and operating room, Boston surgeon Wei was exhausted. But the appreciation survivors showed was worth all the effort, he said.

"They warmed to us very quickly," said Wei. "Some would say to us, 'I love you,' even though they didn't really understand what that meant. But they would try to convey to us feelings in words that they had learned."