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Surviving the floods

Ryerson students on experiential learning trip shift from field research to disaster relief during the worst flooding to hit Kerala, India in 100 years
By: Madeleine McGreevy
November 05, 2018

Photo: Students and staff from the Faculty of Community Services at the Amrita University campus in Kerala, India. The university campus became a relief camp for flood-affected families.

In August, 2018, seven students from the Faculty of Community Services (FCS) and three students from the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science travelled to Kerala, India to learn more about water and sanitation challenges in rural communities, as participants of a Live-in-Lab program at Amrita University, external link.

As part of a partnership between Ryerson and Amrita, developed by Melanie Panitch, John C. Eaton Chair in Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Usha George, dean emeritus, FCS,  students from both universities intended to spend time visiting villages, conducting research, and working with community members to address their needs relating to clean drinking water.

At least, that was the plan.

“About six days into our trip, it started raining,” recalls Nadia Bello, manager of experiential learning strategy at FCS, who accompanied students on the trip. “It didn’t stop for close to two weeks.”

Students quickly found themselves caught up in the most severe flooding to hit the region in almost a century. During the ordeal, over 1 million people were displaced from their homes and over 400 people died.

“We essentially went from doing field work to disaster relief work,” says Bello. “We were out in the field to help support the relief workers that were already doing the work.”

As the flooding cut many villages off from medical care, the Amrita School of Medicine set up medical relief camps on boats and on land. Villagers could access free healthcare for medical issues related or unrelated to the flooding, and students supported the activities of the camps in a variety of ways.

“There were people that came to these camps because they normally wouldn’t be able to afford medical care,” says Jeeniraj Thevasagayam, a student in the Urban and Regional Planning program. “They would travel through water just to get there.”

“By the time we got there, over 500 villagers were waiting for medical treatment,” says Bello.

With Amrita students acting as translators, Ryerson students shadowed doctors and learned more about the health issues villagers were dealing with. Common conditions include diabetes, heart disease, skin disease and vitamin deficiencies.

“A lot of the medical camp was linked to what I was learning in class — especially the nutrient deficiencies,” recalls Lina Rahouma, a student in the Nutrition and Food program.

“One of the cases was diabetes. We talked about the whole physical activity aspect of it and their consumption of white rice,” she says.

Other students helped out by dispensing medical supplies. “Our main job was to hand out prescription drugs — packaging them, making sure we’re giving the correct amount, and then giving them to the clients,” says Nicole Baker, a student in the Collaborative Nursing program.

Out in the waiting area, students spent time listening to villagers share their experiences of how the flood had impacted them. “There was the story of one woman, where she had to swim for a kilometer through snake-infested waters just to get to the place where food rations were being given out, and then she had to swim back with the food on her head,” describes Bello.

In addition to helping out at the medical camps, the group also managed to proceed with building two water filtration systems in villages that were not completely flooded.

Before implementing the project, students consulted with villagers on their water-related needs and collected field data. “Do you need a water filter? Does this community have an existing source of water? Is it clean? 90% [of villages] had bore wells — but they’re all contaminated,” says Thevasagayam.

“There are lots of people who have no problem taking water out of the river [to drink], even though they shower in the same river and go to the bathroom in the same river and do their laundry in the same river,” explains Bello. “So part of the work that we were doing was awareness raising.”

“Clean water in rural communities is not cut and dry,” she continues. “It’s a very complex issue and the community has a lot to say about what they think clean water means to them.”

Villagers celebrated the completion of the water filtration systems with dancing and singing. “There was this one man with his kid and...he was very grateful. He was in tears and very emotional,” says Thevasagayam.  “You could tell that this meant a lot for them.”

Throughout the trip, plans shifted from minute to minute due to changing, often unpredictable, flood conditions. Students drew upon their strength and resolve to cope with the harrowing circumstances.   

“We had no idea what tomorrow would look like, what the next hour would look like,” remembers Rahouma. “Any phone call could change direction.”

“We played soccer in this one field and then a few days later, the soccer field was underwater,” says Bello. “And then we became flood victims ourselves...Amrita University made the call to evacuate and we all had to pack up and leave.”

“We all worked together, we supported each other,” adds Thevasagayam. “It’s scary. For most of us, it was the first time we’d faced a natural disaster.”

“We heard that the airport was closed down, the main roads were washed out, the trains were shut down. So we said, ‘oh, I guess boat’s the only way out.’ We were always thinking of something positive, out of the negative,” he says.

Students were impressed by the villagers’ survival methods and attitudes towards the flood. “They would tell us how they would live on bridges, because they are high enough not to get flooded. They would set up camps, cook together....even if they have issues amongst each other...when something like this happens, they all come together,” says Thevasagayam.

“They were not disappointed with anyone, they were not mad. They knew the flood was out of anyone’s control. The positive energy that they maintained was really, really amazing,” says Rahouma.

Baker remembers the resilience of an elderly woman who had recently lost her son from a heart attack and whose home was flooded. “This lady is 85 years old, her house is basically underwater, her son is gone, but she’s getting through this and is strong,” she says.

Students took home some important life lessons. “I think if I’m put in any situation now, I would be able to adapt, to work through it, to keep calm, to know that it will be okay — because I’ve been through worse,” says Rahouma.

“In nursing, they always say to expect the unexpected — that anything can happen. That’s very true,” says Baker. “As soon as I came back here, I was like, you know what, this is something that I have to take to my nursing profession. You have to be adaptable and you have to be flexible.”

“Being calm in certain situations. Looking for the positives in a negative situation. Being hopeful and being attentive to changing scenarios,” says Thevasagayam. “You get put in the situation and you just have to sink or swim.”

“In a way it was unparalleled learning,” says Bello. “I think the students really rose to the occasion in the way that they really supported each other.”

“Nadia [Bello] was amazing,” says Baker. “She’s an amazing lady...she kept us calm.”

Students shared their experiences at a Community Transformation Cafe on November 5. Watch the panel discussion.