I Can’t Stop Staring at Marlina


I can’t stop staring at the girl sitting in front of me. I can’t help it. Today is Marlina’s 12th birthday. When I first met her after the tsunami, she was two years old, and she was dying. 

Critically malnourished, she weighed barely half what she should. Her belly was stretched taught and round, in stark contrast to the sharp lines of her painfully thin arms and legs. In the days after the tsunami, her mother, Nuraisyah, wasn’t able to get enough vegetables and protein to feed her, so little Marlina was losing weight. Her mother was terrified.


“I remember when we first met,” Nuraisyah said, holding my hand, now in the safety of her new home. “Marlina was so sick. I was so sad, and so scared. We were living in tents. Will she be cured or not? And I thought the worst – what if she died? Then after meeting with the doctor from CARE and Marlina got treatment, gradually I gained hope for her recovery, and bit by bit, the swollen belly got smaller and smaller, and she got better.


“It was a dream come true.”


Today, Marlina is a soft-spoken but confident girl, second in her class and with plans to become a teacher. Her favourite subject is English. She straightens her shoulders, and practices her English with me: “What is your name? My name is Marlina,” she says in a clear, sing-song voice, then collapses into giggles and covers her mouth with her hand as her family claps proudly.


I’m clapping too, and grinning from ear to ear – I can’t believe that this is the same frail, sick little girl I met almost 10 years ago. I can still remember her tiny face crumpled with pain as we tried to feed her High Energy Milk to treat her malnutrition, and this image is juxtaposed with the smiling, ambitious girl sitting beside me today.


My connection with Marlina and her mom stretches back 10 years, and I’ve also seen them move forward. In 2005, I ran into Marlina by chance as she was playing with other children at a CARE psychosocial activity for children to help them cope with the trauma of the tsunami, and a year after that, I visited them in their transitional home in Jantho where they were waiting for their permanent home to be completed.


Today, we’re sitting in the family’s home that was built by CARE. Just this year, they finished an extension on the back of the house: a bright, lofty kitchen with high ceilings and a smooth cement floor. Bags of rice from Nuraisyah’s recent harvest are stacked neatly beside the wall. Outside, life goes on in a busy little community of tidy streets and identical houses built by CARE for tsunami survivors who lost their homes.


“Things are better now. Life is normal. My family is all here. If someone asks us where we live, we say “CARE housing”, and everyone knows it. It’s the name of our neighbourhood now,” she says, and the family members and neighbours who are sitting around her all laugh and nod.


This, almost more than anything I’ve seen in my 11 years with CARE, is what we are here to do: we save lives in emergencies, but we also help families recover, so they can send their children to school, go back to work, and make plans for the future. Now, Nuraisyah’s main concerns are trying to get her two-year-old son, Mirza Ukail, to sleep (when he cries, he looks a lot like his sister did at that age!), and how Marlina and her other brother, Jauhan Hafis, 8, are doing in school. These are normal worries, the worries of any mother or father around the world.


“Once in a while, we remember the tsunami,” she says softly. “We remember the old village. Whenever there is an earthquake, it reminds us of the past. But mostly, we don’t think of it. There’s nothing to worry about, because we can’t change it. But we can be grateful for what we have.”

I don’t know if this will be the last time I ever meet Marlina, but I now have a beautiful, smiling image in my head to replace the one from 10 years ago. Marlina stares back at me, and smiles.

Written by Melanie Brooks