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Minnesota aid worker raises money for boats

By Elizabeth Dunbar

Associated Press

The raging ocean killed the fisherman's wife and put him and his 13-year-old daughter in the hospital.

In a loss nearly as devastating, the Asian tsunami destroyed his boat -- the means to his livelihood.

The man, one of many people affected in the small villages of Thailand's Phang Nga and Ranong provinces, showed the damage last week to Gary Dahl, a field director for the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee.

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"The smaller boats have just been wiped away," Dahl said Monday night in a telephone interview from Thailand. "Others broke right in two and are damaged beyond repair."

The cost of new boats, anywhere from $500 to $1,250, would be beyond the means of most of the families in the provinces. So Dahl, a Minnesota native who usually works with refugees from Myanmar, decided to start a fund for replacements. His original goal: $60,000, enough to buy about 120 boats.

But the response has been so strong that the American Refugee Committee raised that goal Tuesday, aiming now to replace all of the 320 lost or destroyed boats Dahl and other aid workers have identified in several different villages. Any amount over $160,000 will go toward outfitting the boats with motors and fishing equipment.

Already, the Fishing Boat Project has raised $10,000, said Martha Naegeli, a spokeswoman for the American Refugee Committee.

"The volume of checks we're receiving this week has literally overwhelmed us," Naegeli said.

Donations have mostly come from Minnesotans, she said, something that struck Dahl as completely natural.

"There's a Minnesota connection to the boats," he said. Also, "Minnesotans are farmers, so they know what it's like to live off the land and be affected sometimes by disasters."

Dahl's boat project piqued the interest of Perry Witkin, a small business owner and president of Minneapolis-based Nechama Jewish Response to Disaster, a volunteer organization that helps people in Minnesota and western Wisconsin recover from floods and tornadoes.

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"The beautiful thing about this project is that someone's identified a need that will help people restart and reclaim their lives," Witkin said.

Witkin and his employees at STAT Technologies have committed to enough money for five boats, or about $2,500. But Witkin also has teamed up with the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council to raise even more. The organizations will give the money from their effort -- called Operation Noah's Arc -- to the American Refugee Committee.

"It feels good to attach your efforts to a specific project," he said. Witkin, who says he's an avid fisherman, also likes the idea of meeting a long-term need.

"After the cameras leave, after volunteers leave, people won't have the tools they need," Witkin said. "For these people to regain self-sufficiency is a tremendous gift."

Dahl said he wasn't expecting such a strong response to the project. "Maybe it's a feeling of overwhelming helplessness. How do we respond to such a huge emergency?" he said. "This is something that is not only tangible, but it's affordable, and it can make a real difference in a family's life."

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