Forest Fires in Portugal

Forest fires hit Portugal in June and October 2017, burning down vast areas and damaging 1,500 residential structures. During the October fires, strong winds from a hurricane intensified the blazes and quickly spread them beyond control.

I saw the October conflagrations on TV in the United Kingdom. As a Tzu Chi volunteer, I wanted to help, but I spoke no Portuguese. Since there were no Tzu Chi volunteers living in Portugal, the most I could do at that time was to continue to keep a close eye on the situation.

Later, during a trip to Taiwan in November, I met Lin Mei-feng (林美鳳), a fellow Tzu Chi volunteer who lived in Germany. We talked about the possibility of giving aid to victims of the forest fires. She said that a friend of hers, Pedro Pinto Duarte, an attorney in Lisbon, might be able to help.

Then I heard that Deputy Pedro Alves of the Portuguese national parliament, in an effort to seek aid for his fellow countrymen, had requested assistance from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center (TECC), Lisbon, the equivalent of Taiwan’s embassy there. Representative (Ambassador) Raymond L. S. Wang (王樂生) subsequently wrote two letters to the Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan requesting help for fire victims in Portugal.

Forest fires affected over 150 farming families in Vouzela, in Viseu, Portugal, with a loss estimated at 8 million euros.


Tzu Chi organized a small team of volunteers from France, England, and America to travel to Portugal to assess the damage. The team, of which I was a member, originally planned to set out on November 27, but we had to postpone the trip because a long holiday in Portugal slowed the government’s response to us. Pedro Pinto Duarte and the TECC worked tirelessly with government officials to iron out issues and arrange things so we could enter the country as soon as possible. Finally, thanks to them, our advance team arrived in Portugal on December 5.

The Centro Regional Coordination and Development Commission (CCDR-C) handled the funds that the EU gave to Portugal to help the fire victims reestablish themselves. Each affected family received 5,000 euros (US$6,200). Our delegation met with Ana Abrunhosa, the president of CCDR-C. Accompanied by TECC representatives, we also met with city officials at Tondela and Vouzela, two disaster areas.

By that time, two months had passed since the October fires. Even so, when we visited the disaster areas to survey the damage, we saw charred trees, scorched land, and houses partly or totally destroyed in villages that had been badly hit by the fires. People whose houses had been destroyed had been placed in shelters by the city governments, but we could see that the road to recovery was going to be long.

A firefighter who accompanied us said that the winds had blown very hard during the fires. The winds, carrying the heat and fury of the fires with them, spread the flames rapidly in the same direction, engulfing some homes in flames while miraculously sparing other houses. The mountainous terrain had made it hard to transport fire-fighting equipment and water, so firefighters were in a poor position to battle the blazes. Though disadvantaged, they still fought furiously to save lives and buildings. After two days of exertion, they were all thoroughly exhausted.

In our five-day trip, we noticed that the victims of the fires were mostly older farmers. Their farms, implements, and livestock had gone up in flames. They really needed help.

On February 24 and 25, 2018, 68 volunteers from Germany, England, France, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, the United States, and Portugal held three distributions of gift vouchers and scarves made from recycled PET bottles to over 490 affected families in Tondela and Vouzela. The vouchers could be used to pay for daily necessities and farming implements.

I was happy to be able to do what I could to help the aid recipients. Hopefully, our aid, delivered with a sincere desire to help, brought some warmth to the recipients’ hearts.

Tzu Chi volunteers from seven countries worked together to hold three distributions for victims of forest fires in Tondela and Vouzela, Portugal, in February 2018.

Love Without a Doubt

By Lin Mei-feng

Translated by Tang Yau-yang

Photos by Wang Su-zhen

The locals wondered why these strangers had traveled from their own countries to help them. At the distribution venues, they found the answer to their question.

In February 2018, the Tzu Chi Foundation dispatched a delegation of volunteers to distribute aid to victims of forest fires in Portugal. One of the cities the volunteers delivered aid to was Tondela, in the Viseu district of the Centro Region. Even before arriving in Portugal to carry out their work, delegation members had worked with Miguel Torres, chief of staff in the Tondela city government, to prepare for the distribution.

At first, things didn’t go well. Even though both parties were striving to help fire victims, obstacles in international or intercontinental communications, language barriers, time differences, gaps in cultural values, and differences in viewpoints seemed to stand like tall walls between the two sides. The Tzu Chi advance team that had visited Portugal in December 2017 surely had not anticipated such developments.

Those of us on the delegation consequently had an uneasy feeling about whether the distribution would be able to proceed smoothly. Thankfully, our volunteers remained undaunted and continued working with government officials to iron out the issues. Finally, after repeated communications and some delays, things began to fall into place. The agreement about the gift vouchers to be distributed to fire victims was eventually signed. The vouchers were printed and the claim checks distributed to recipients. The walls gradually disappeared.

A Tzu Chi volunteer speaks to an audience of aid recipients during a distribution held at a school in Vouzela, Viseu, Portugal.


A heart-felt confession

Our delegation arrived in Portugal in late February to carry out the aid mission. After finishing two distributions in Vouzela on February 24, we proceeded to Tondela for the distribution to be held there the following day. Benefiting from that previous experience, we carried out the distribution in Tondela even more smoothly. The venue was filled with a heartwarming atmosphere, and many residents were visibly moved.

After the distribution, we sat down to review and share our thoughts about the event. Though Miguel had packed up and was ready to go home, he didn’t leave. He seemed to be waiting for something. He sat off to one side and listened to the volunteers share their thoughts. We seized upon the chance and invited him to say a few words.

He said that the forest fires had caused huge losses in large geographical areas and that everyone was deeply saddened. Many people and groups wanted to help, but things didn’t work out as many of them had promised. That made him doubt whether people could work together to do things that were really helpful. “That’s why we hesitated when Tzu Chi first approached us. We couldn’t understand why people from a charity organization based in a place halfway around the world from us would want to come to a small town like ours to help us, so we didn’t really hold our breath.”

His doubts only began to dissipate after he had been contacted several times by volunteer Chen Ji Hong (陳濟弘), from New Jersey. Gradually, Miguel began to feel that he might not need to be so wary of the foundation or to worry that they might have any ulterior motives. “Especially after the distribution today, we realized how unfounded our doubts about the foundation had been.” The distribution ceremony, he felt, deserved the respect of every participant, including himself, an atheist. The ceremony was so good and beautiful. No religious sermons had been forced upon them, and they felt loved and respected. He had been pleasantly surprised.

“The love from Tzu Chi volunteers has made us believers—believing that helping hands can indeed come from strangers in far-away places,” Miguel concluded.

High school students (in yellow-green vests) enlisted by Vouzela city officials help out at a distribution.


A local helper

The forest fires in June 2017 took 64 lives. In September, my family introduced me to Pedro Pinto Duarte, an attorney in Lisbon. After talking to him, I felt that he was a very loving person. For example, he was particularly concerned about Syrian refugees in Europe. Pedro enthusiastically helped out after the October conflagrations broke out and an advance team of Tzu Chi volunteers began planning on visiting the nation to assess the situation and evaluate what Tzu Chi could do to help.

In just three days Pedro established a contact with the Centro Regional Coordination and Development Commission (CCDR-C). The CCDR-C works with local governments to compile disaster damage statistics, reports to the European Union, and applications to the EU for funds for disaster relief. The CCDR-C would be able to help us get a more comprehensive grasp of the forest fire disasters.

After the advance team had visited Portugal and were preparing to go home, Pedro expressed his desire to become a Tzu Chi volunteer and promised to be our contact in Portugal. In the two months that followed he did exactly as he had promised. On behalf of Tzu Chi, he discussed the issuance of gift vouchers with responsible parties and negotiated with vendors. He also supplied information to our team.

Though his day job as an attorney kept him very busy, he put his Tzu Chi duties high on his priority list. Even when he was in court, he used the recesses to make arrangements for the aid distributions. He did his best to help Tzu Chi and was grateful for the opportunity to serve. He said that if people from so far a place as Taiwan were willing to extend a helping hand, how could a native Portuguese not do what he could to help his fellow countrymen?

Pedro helped resolve many issues during the process, and finally the distributions were about to take place. With his two young children in tow, he drove more than five hours in near-freezing temperatures to Vouzela to join the delegation. But not long after he had arrived, his father called and asked him to return to Lisbon immediately because Pedro’s cousin had been severely hurt in an automobile accident. Pedro therefore had to turn right around and go back to Lisbon.

The Tzu Chi advance team visited Ana Abrunhosa (fourth from left), the president of the Centro Regional Coordination and Development Commission, in December 2017. Portuguese attorney Pedro Pinto Duarte (third from right) gave Tzu Chi volunteers a lot of assistance as they worked to help fire victims.  Zheng Long


Another local helper

Pedro and German volunteer Jan Wolf had originally been scheduled to be the co-hosts of the distribution ceremonies, so the vacancy caused by Pedro’s sudden departure had to be filled quickly. The first distribution would commence in a matter of hours. Local volunteer Carlos Mendos stepped up to the plate. He quickly rehearsed in the short time before the distribution would start. He and Jan completed their assignment without a hitch.

Carlos, originally from South Africa, immigrated with his family to Vouzela when he was ten. He was very anxious during the October forest fires because he had relatives who lived in one of the disaster areas. Despite his anxiety, he couldn’t enter the area to check on his relatives because the fires were too intense; he was forced to wait outside. He said that he would never forget such a painful experience.

Later, Carlos learned from social media that Tzu Chi was going to hold aid distributions for fire survivors, and volunteers were needed to translate during the distributions. He took time off work to volunteer.

Carlos said that people who, like him, had come forward to volunteer for Tzu Chi were themselves either fire victims or had family members or friends who were fire victims. Therefore, they could readily empathize with the aid recipients and were eager to help. He paid special tribute to the volunteers who had come from other countries and who had chosen to temporarily set aside their families and jobs so that they could come to Portugal to help his countrymen. He admired them for offering help without regard to race, religion, or nationality.

He also pointed out that Tzu Chi volunteers were very humble when they helped others—quite distinct from the image that he, with his cultural background and upbringing, would have at first assumed. He truly understood now that national borders do not necessarily prevent people from working with each other. He hoped that Tzu Chi’s love could carry on in his country.

Carlos Mendos (left) and Jan Wolf co-host a distribution ceremony.


Everybody can help

Maria Paiva, another local volunteer, read Master Cheng Yen’s consolation letter during the distribution ceremonies in Vouzela. Maria’s warm voice and compassionate expression comforted many in the audience. She spent four days with our delegation, translating at the sign-in and health counseling areas at the distributions. She treated the people she met as lovingly as a mother would treat her own children.

Maria recently retired from teaching English in a high school. She had lived in Australia for ten years before returning to Portugal to settle in a town not far from Vouzela. While in Australia, she had met many Asians and been exposed to Asian cultures. She said that her encounter with Tzu Chi volunteers, most of whom were Asian, had been inspirational and delightful.

She mentioned that she liked Tzu Chi because its volunteers are always ready to help and they give without asking for anything in return. She was impressed to learn that Tzu Chi is mostly funded by small donations from many people, and even more moved by how our volunteers pay all their own expenses associated with their participation in aid missions—travel, lodging, meals, and all. This practice enables the foundation to spend as much of the donations that it receives from the public as possible on needy people. Though she was of modest means, she said she was happy to contribute her time to help the foundation.

Maria had learned about her chance to volunteer for Tzu Chi through a volunteer association called Diáspora por Portugal Sem Fogo – UK, which was established after the 2017 wildfires to prevent, fight, and raise awareness of forest fires. Frank Lie (李宏耀), head of Tzu Chi Britain, had sought interpreters through the organization. Carla Almeida of Tondela also came to volunteer for Tzu Chi through this association.

Carla worked mostly in the health consultation area, helping four physicians communicate with their patients. She was gentle and patient with the people she was helping, much like a typical Tzu Chi volunteer. She made elderly recipients feel like she was a child of their own caring for them.

Carla was not rich, but she always sought opportunities to help others. She had gotten online to find fire victim families, and she visited them at their homes. She discovered that though they had lost their houses, implements, and livestock and needed physical aid, what they needed even more was love and care. When they felt loved and cared for, they would derive strength from this to carry on and reestablish themselves. Therefore, she showed her care for them and did what she could to help them, including volunteering at the distributions. She listened patiently to and interpreted for people seeking help at the health consultation area. Her actions showed those she helped that they were not alone.

Maria Paiva (center) and a Tzu Chi volunteer tend to a patient in the health consultation area at a distribution venue.

Selfless love

In Tondela, a town of about 30,000 people, 220 houses were totally burned down, including Rita Loio’s. As she and her family were waiting to rebuild, feeling sad and lost, she met the Tzu Chi advance team. At first she thought they were tourists. When she learned of the purpose behind their visit, she, like other locals, had a hard time understanding why people would want to travel from afar to help residents in a small town in Portugal.

She eventually found her answer when she volunteered as an interpreter during the distributions: selfless love. It was love that had motivated Tzu Chi volunteers to take the time and effort to deliver help to her town.

“I’ll remember all this,” Rita said, “and I look forward to working again with Tzu Chi volunteers to help others.”

Jose and the Old Woman

By Hou Su-qiu

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

Photo by Wang Su-zhen

Jose, 16, is a high school freshman in Vouzela, Portugal. He volunteered to interpret at our aid distributions in the city. The day before the distributions, he and some classmates came to the venue to learn about what they would be doing. His classmates left after we had explained things, but Jose stayed to help us set up the place.

The next day, Jose was the first local volunteer to report at the venue. Just a few minutes before the first distribution began, he exclaimed, “Wow, what a huge turnout! I’ve never seen so many people gathered together at the same time in this village!”

During the first distribution, an old woman with a walking stick tottered into the venue. She was dressed in thin clothes and carried a black handbag. She was a recipient for the second distribution, but she had arrived too early.

Jose guided her to a seat and got her settled. While waiting, she stood up twice and asked how much longer she would have to wait. She pointed to an old man sitting behind her and said, “He drove me here. He’s leaving. I’ve got to go too. How much longer do I have to wait?”

We felt anxious for her, but we were afraid there wasn’t much we could do for her. She’d just have to wait a little longer. I tried to strike up a conversation with her to keep her occupied. Using Jose to translate, I asked her, “Who do you live with?”

The old woman told us impatiently that she had lived alone for 20 years. Her house had burned down in the forest fires, but she had been rescued by a police officer. The house of the man who had driven her to the distribution had burned down too. She looked sad and forlorn when she finished.

Instinctively, I reached out and grasped her hand tightly in mine. With Jose interpreting for me, I said to her, “Granny, you are not alone. We’ve especially come today to bring you love and care from Tzu Chi volunteers around the world.” The old woman’s eyes glistened. She looked moved. We could see her trying to hold back her tears. Her impatience from a few minutes ago was nowhere to be found.

She said to Jose as she settled back down, “I know you. I know your uncle, too.” Jose looked incredulously at her as she began to tell him stories about their hometown.

When I learned through Jose that the woman had been born 82 years ago to the day, I double-checked with her: “So, today is your birthday?” She nodded and said, “Yes.” Jose and I exclaimed to her simultaneously, “Happy birthday!” She thanked us and wished us peace too. All the while she never let go of my hand.

A fellow volunteer filled in some information for her so that she could receive her relief items as soon as possible. When she finally got them, we saw her off.

Much to our surprise, she returned just ten minutes later. It appeared that she was unwilling to leave. She hugged the volunteers who had seen her off at the entrance, pecking each on the cheeks and muttering “Thank you” again and again.

Jose was greatly cheered by this experience. He warmly said hello to the other older villagers at the venue and nodded to his neighbors. He was happy he was able to do something for his hometown.


A Tzu Chi volunteer embraces a fire victim.


May 2018