Sarpol-e Zahab was the city hardest hit by a devastating earthquake that rocked most of Iran's western Kermanshah province Nov. 12, 2017, killing over 600 people. It is also where children still play a game where they simulate the quake by making the horrible sounds and frightening each other in the rubble — an indication of just how entangled the disaster has become with the lives of traumatized survivors.
Media reports on the ground show that the misery is far from over and a complete return to normal life remains a dream to come true. "People have gotten used to living in the midst of the rubble, the dirt and the metal shelters, which are but a real home," a survivor told Jahan Sanat daily. "Every time it rains, we are stuck in mud up to our knees. After one year, conditions are still awful — nothing has changed," complained a woman from a quake-hit village.
To make matters worse, lack of proper shelter has been coupled with recent biting inflation in Iran, rooted in the currency devaluation resulting from the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal. "The rising prices have been twice as much devastating as the quake," locals told Iranian Labour News Agency.
During a Cabinet meeting Nov. 13, however, President Hassan Rouhani painted an overall positive picture of reconstruction and temporary housing projects.
Known for its venomous diatribes against the Rouhani administration, the hard-line paper Kayhan lashed out at officials who traveled to the quake-hit areas for photo opportunities and headed home without offering concrete help. The paper instead praised the supreme leader's "heartening" sit-down with the survivors and lauded the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for "standing by" the quake-stricken people.
Private fundraising for last year's quake victims has not ceased to be a controversy in Iran. Only last month, two public figures were summoned by state investigators for questioning over where the charity ended up. Once again putting the issue under the spotlight, Kayhan criticized those "celebrities" for taking selfies with the survivors and leaving them behind — a claim also confirmed by a village chief who complained about an inadequate funneling of donations collected by those figures.
That, however, has not overshadowed the work of Narges Kalbasi Ashtari, a British-Iranian charity worker who has committed herself to an around-the-clock relief mission in Sarpol e-Zahab's quake-hit villages.
Prior to traveling back to her homeland, the aid worker was involved in humanitarian activities in India, focusing mainly on improving children's livelihoods there. But she had to spend some time behind bars after being convicted of "negligence" leading to the death of an Indian boy during a picnic. Ashtari never pleaded guilty, accusing local officials of complicating her case after she refused to pay them bribes. She was later acquitted after an online petition drew hundreds of thousands of signatures worldwide in her support.
While public donations for the Iran quake survivors have waxed and waned during the past year, Ashtari's reconstruction projects have not stopped growing. She has been documenting her work in daily and weekly reports on social media to keep the public abreast and to ensure transparency. By Nov. 11, she had collected a sum of nearly $29 million. While "the lady of hope" has already built scores of houses from scratch, her activities have also expanded to jobs for women, children-related programs and post-traumatic stress disorder therapy sessions.
The key to her success, according to moderate paper Hamshahri, lies in her "accountability, perseverance and interaction with government institutions."
"This is what my normal life is about," Ashtari typically replies to those who wonder why she does not get back to her personal life after one year.
"Exactly one year ago, we said we will build again … we stood by one another and made it happen … action is always the best response," an upbeat Ashtari, wearing a traditional Kurdish headscarf, told her audience in a tweeted video message of thanks accompanied by a patriotic song and aerial shots of new houses built on the debris.
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