Drama teacher earns humanitarian award
By JURIS GRANEY
LAWRENCE'S Santiago Acera has been awarded Australia's top humanitarian award for his work with children in the Maldives after the Boxing Day tsunami.
Mr Acera, a member of Australian Volunteers International, spent three months working within the schooling system of the most devastated section of the southern island of Buruni in the Kolhumadului Atoll.
He then travelled to the Maldives capital, Male, working for a further three months.
The drama teacher's award, the Humanitarian Overseas Service Medal, was established in 1999 and is placed just below the Police Overseas Service Medal in the order of wearing Australian honours and awards.
Mr Acera was one of just six Australians commissioned to work in the Maldives, following the tsunami that killed more than 280,000 people.
"There were not many casualties in the Maldives but they are economically devastated," he said.
During his time in the Indian Ocean-based island network, Mr Acera established himself as a drama teacher tutoring more than 700 Year 2, 3 and 4 students a week.
"It was very tough on the students," he said. "Their homes were flooded. It was tough on us as well as it was very emotional.
"In the initial few weeks you could feel the trauma of the children.
"They wouldn't walk to the beach, they were scared of every little noise of a night, and because the islands are so low, they were constantly worried.
"But what kept me going was seeing their little faces happy."
About 1500 people were evacuated from the neighbouring island of Vilufushi and taken to Buruni whose population at the time of the tsunami was just 800. It was overcrowded and a lot of people were very upset that the government had moved them," he said.
"They were fighting to go back home."
Mr Acera said another tsunami scare in April epitomised the local feelings, following the initial natural disaster.
"Everyone went to the local mosque and just sat down and prayed," he said.
"They knew that there was nothing they could do, their lives are on low-lying islands.
"They had nowhere to go, so they just went and prayed."
At the end of his overseas sabbatical, Mr Acera organised a concert for 350 students to show off their new-found talents.
Mr Acera also organised workshops for 80 teachers, helping to train them in education methodology from Australia.
It is the not the first time Mr Acera has served overseas in a humanitarian role.
In 1997 and 1998 he went to the war-torn African nation of Eritrea, which had recently come out of a 30-year civil war, as the artistic director of the only circus in the country.
Originally from Spain, Mr Acera moved to the Lower Clarence in 1995. He said the award, which he received a fortnight ago, was very special.
"It helps me feel a little bit more Aussie," he said.