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Bushfire-ravaged community deeply moved by PNG donation

COMMUNITY

When Andy Thorp heard his Rotary Club in the town of Merimbula on the NSW south-coast was being sent a donation from people in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to help bushfire victims, he was shocked to learn of the amount.

“I thought there might be anything from a couple of hundred dollars to $1,000. But I was wildly wrong,” he told the ABC. “The donation totalled more than $60,000. What a generous thing to do. I thank them very much.”

Merimbula is one of many towns still recovering months after some of the worst bushfires Australia has ever seen. In total, more than 12.6 million hectares were burnt, nearly 3,000 homes destroyed and an estimated three billion native animals killed or displaced.

Images of blood-red skies over the Bega Valley and thousands of people trapped and then evacuated by the Navy were broadcast around the world. In Lae, PNG’s second-largest city and capital of Morobe province, Sheila Harou saw those pictures on the news and was inspired to action.

“We called out to all our Morobeans to be united in one heart, to give from the heart to console our neighbour,” she said.

She started an appeal, which saw young people take to the streets pushing wheelbarrows, asking for public donations, while more than twenty organisations also gave money. “Youth groups, churches, businesses, schools, and corporate houses . . . they all gave in cash and kind,” she said.

The act of kindness left Bega Valley Council Shire Mayor Sharon Tapscott astounded. “To read that these people were donating what little they had, I cannot tell you how much this money means to me, not so much in dollar terms but the value in humanitarian terms, it’s amazing,” she said.

Lae is home to just over 70,000 people. Many earn less than a dollar a day, with the Asian Development Bank estimating more than a third of Papua New Guineans live below the national poverty line.

Tapscott and Harou were able to virtually meet for the first time in early August. “I can't express our heartfelt thanks enough to you and the people of Lae,” Tapscott told Harou over a video call. “It has been the most remarkable thing that has happened out of all of these fires.”

Most of the funds were donated to the Bega Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, which Tapscott said would benefit communities still struggling to recover after more than 400 houses were lost and many livelihoods ruined in the fires. She said the money would be distributed as $500 grants to residents for immediate relief, and also for mental health recovery. The rest, around $11,000, Rotary has spent on two trailers for BlazeAid, a volunteer-based organisation that repairs farm fences burnt in the fires.

Harou said she was pleased to hear the money raised in Lae would help rebuild the homes and hearts of their neighbours across the sea. “From the beginning we said we must give from the heart and it must reach another heart, so it feels good that our money is put to good use supporting our neighbour friend and family out there,” she said. “We have our own needs here as well, but when we saw the need of our closest neighbour . . . it touched our heart.”

ABOVE Young people of Lae fundraising for Australian bushfire victims

PHOTO Helen Taylor

We have our own needs here as well, but when we saw the need of our closest neighbour . . . it touched our heart.

Sheila Harou

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