When footage of last summer’s devastating bushfires reached the people of Lae in Papua New Guinea, the community rallied together to support their Aussie neighbours.
By Jordan Fennell
Pacific Beat / ABC News
When Andy Thorp heard his Rotary club in the seaside town of Merimbula, NSW, was being sent a donation from people in Papua New Guinea 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 $1000. But I was wildly wrong,” he said.
The donation totalled more than $60,000.
“What a generous thing to do. I thank them very much.”
Merimbula is one of many towns on the NSW east coast still recovering months after some of the worst bushfires Australia has ever seen.
More than 12.6 million hectares across Australia were burnt, nearly 3000 homes destroyed and almost three billion koalas, kangaroos and other animals were estimated to have been killed or displaced, in Australia’s Black Summer bushfires.
Images of blood-red skies over the Bega Valley and thousands of people who had been trapped and then evacuated by the Navy were broadcast around the world.
In Papua New Guinea’s second-largest city, Lae, Sheila Harou saw those pictures on the news and was inspired to take action.
“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.”
“We called out to all our Morobeans to be united in one heart, to give from the heart to console our neighbour,” she said.
Sheila started a bushfire appeal, which saw young people take to the streets pushing wheelbarrows, asking for public donations, while more than 20 organisations also gave money.
“Youth groups, churches, businesses, schools, and corporate houses… they all participated and gave their contributions in cash and kind,” she said.
In total, they raised $61,000, which has made its way throughout August to communities in the Eden-Monaro electorate.
The money was given to the Rotary Club of Merimbula, which gave $50,000 to the Bega Valley Council.
The Rotary club kept $11,000 for bushfire recovery projects in
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.
Just over 70,000 people live in Lae, the capital city of PNG’s Morobe province.
Many earn less than a dollar a day, with the Asian Development Bank estimating that 37.5 per cent of Papua New Guineans live below the national poverty line.
Sharon and Sheila were able to virtually meet for the first time
“I can’t express our heartfelt thanks enough for you and the people of Lae,” Sharon told Sheila over a video call.
“It has been the most remarkable thing that has happened out of all of these fires.”
They have promised to visit each other once border restrictions between the two countries are lifted.
“I’m going to come and say hello,” Sharon said.
Andy Thorp from the Rotary Club of Merimbula said he felt a huge responsibility to honour the people of Lae who had donated so much.
“To utilise the money quickly for the purposes for which it was donated, and for something that was worthwhile,” he said.
The Rotary club spent the $11,000 on two trailers for BlazeAid, a volunteer-based organisation that repairs fences that were lost in the fires in rural communities.
Andy had a local sign maker create the flag of Morobe Province along with a plaque recognising the contributions and attached them to the back of the trailers, as a way to honour those who had donated.
“Those signs will remain on the trailer for the life of the trailer… and when they come back from BlazeAid and onto the RFS, and are in the communities, the people will see that,” he said.
The majority of funds were donated to the Bega Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund, which Sharon said would benefit communities still struggling to recover many months after more than 400 houses were lost and many livelihoods destroyed in the bushfires.
“We’re struggling to support the people… we’ve had lots of help… but we’ve not only got less than ideal conditions that we’re living in, but we’ve got the mental health side of the issue.”
She said the money would be distributed as $500 grants community members can access for immediate relief, and also put towards mental health recovery.
Sheila said she was pleased to hear the money they 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.”