On Sunday 15th April, despite poor weather our AMURT Portugal team members visited Benfeita and the surrounding area to assess the situation for ourselves. What we saw was heart-breaking. We passed through miles and miles of burnt forest and damaged buildings on our way and our minds were stunned by the enormity of this disaster.
On our arrival we were introduced to several residents of the Benfeita area who had lost their houses and their livelihoods. Wendy narrated how her permaculture courses, her source of livelihood, had come to a standstill when she lost her guest/ volunteer house to the fire; Lynn bubbled with new ideas for development, as she showed us around her land, but behind the smiles, we could feel a deep sadness in the depths of her being for the loss of the innovative wooden houses where she hosted volunteers and courses and fruit trees she had planted. She is currently renting a room in the village while she figures how how to get the funds she needs to build a schist stone house from the ruin on her land. Raffa, an older Portuguese man had built his stone house and created a garden with his own hands, collecting rare trees from the hills round about and tenderly nurturing them and the plants which provided him with all his food. As he spoke of his deep love for his garden and the 12 years of loving care he had invested in it, tears filled his eyes and we felt the pain of his loss. With his garden and home gone, he has no means of support and he is staying with a neighbour.
Perhaps the most shocking was our visit to Zoe, a single parent with three children who was living in a caravan. A second very old caravan had recently arrived…no doubt donated… and was in the process of being renovated with the help of some volunteers who had turned up from Lisbon to help. This 2nd caravan would provide more space for these lively family of four who are now living in Avery restricted space . I think she didn’t even have a toilet inside. Zoe had lost everything in the fire – her house, her car, her small herb business and her computer where the moon cycle calendars that she sold around the world were stored. Only a hard copy remained. As I looked at this desperate worn-down mother, I wondered how she was managing to feed her children. I asked my local guide about it, but he didn’t know…
The situation of all these families has been worsened by six weeks of almost continuous rain which has severely hampered the clean-up and efforts to start rebuilding, using the funds that have been raised. Out of over 40 families who have lost their homes, the government has so far agreed to rebuild around 23. Raffa was upbeat – his house was approved for rebuilding. Zoe’s was not.
There were several other families with young children who had lost their homes who we could not meet, and I was left wondering how on earth they could manage to feed their young families while facing so much hardship.
Our AMURT volunteers were deeply moved by this experience and we left wondering what we could do to help. They urgently need volunteers to come and help them and are deeply grateful for whatever support we can give. A school in the village has been turned into a hostel which is providing free accommodation for volunteers, and my friends assured me that all visitors would be fed. They also need more funds….much more than we have been able to collect.
If you would like to help Zoe or Wendy or Lynn or any of the other unnamed families to get back on their feet by volunteering for a day, two days or a week, kindly send us a mail and we will put you in touch with the community. Financial contributions may be sent to: