Sun, 07 Mar 1999

Economic crash forces ICAC to downsize

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): For nearly a quarter of a century, the gates of Jakarta's International Community Activity Center (ICAC) remained open to everyone in the city.

Today, the center is being forced to pull down the shutters on many of its activities as the economic storm huffs and puffs at its doors, threatening to blow the house away.

With expatriates leaving Indonesia in droves, ICAC watches helplessly as its membership drops and its volunteers disappear, forcing it to reduce operating costs by almost half last year.

Being a nonprofit, self-funding organization that earns money through membership fees and enrollments to its courses, ICAC gasps for breath with the departure from the city of each dollar- earning expatriate.

ICAC's chairman, Phil Shah, says "Every effort is being explored to downsize rather than close down." He added that a plan for short-term survival has been formulated to first and foremost lure in more members, create exciting activities that will also generate money and to sublease portions of the new ICAC house.

Despite a recent drive to attract new members, the list has dipped to 500 members, compared to 1,200 early last year.

"No one predicted the economic crash," sighs a board member.

Three years ago, the premises on Jl. Kemang Raya were bursting at the seams with thousands of members and hundreds of different services.

Membership hit an all time high of 3,000, who enjoyed a choice of over 200 different courses, classes and tours. Needy Indonesians also benefited from thousands of dollars worth of student scholarships and multiple community and welfare projects.

ICAC came into being in 1975, when expatriates began pouring into the country to do business. The two-room center was meant to be a home away from home, initially offering a meeting place for small talk. As people got more familiar with each other, discussions graduated to include topics like teenage drug problems in Jakarta and family and marital counseling.

ICAC is the only place in Indonesia where an expat can receive counseling from professional expat therapists. Today, as many as six counselors help people with adjustment problems, parent-child problems, substance abuse, marital issues, teen issues and anything else that needs talking through.

A founding member, Jo Haskin, recalls, "Earlier, an expat living here had to go to Singapore for similar services."

When a small group of wives of expats met for coffee and a chat, the idea was to help each other feel comfortable in their new place of residence as soon as possible. Later, the objective became to also facilitate a successful transition from one culture to another, in the hope of a healthy and harmonious relationship between an expanding international community and its host country.

It seemed easy for the men to slip into a familiar routine of going to work and coming home for rest and recreation. The children, too, eventually settled down at school but the wives felt that they were somehow left mostly on their own to fend for themselves.

A need was felt to keep the morale of this group of often very talented and professional women going, as they found themselves miles away from family and friends. As members increased at the coffee mornings, departments were created and programs started strictly in response to requests from the international community itself.

A banker's wife with two children feels Jakarta is a great place to discover yourself. When she first arrived in the city two years ago she was totally lost. But once the children were happy in school and the house was managed by an army of maids, it leaves enough time for wives and mothers to bond with each other.

Coming mostly from western countries where domestic help appears only in an occasional dream, many a hardcore professional too often chooses to do little more in this tropical paradise than relax with a weekly massage and a monthly facial.

Others find themselves flowering into historians, dance and music addicts, painters, photographers and nature helpers.

Some find themselves suddenly so footloose and fancy-free that they are happy to escape once in a while to far and near corners of this fascinating city, like on a stroll with Angela for an antique and curios tour. They follow Pak Faried to the city's religious sites, discover Mayestik Market with Ade or return to Angela for an escape tour to Bogor.

Mike Reagan, the outgoing director, says that during the four years he spent at ICAC he learned so much. He is leaving Jakarta with sage-like advice that the only constant in our life is change. And it is change that is in the air for ICAC as well.

Mira and Rini, two of 15 Indonesians employees here, say the best thing about having worked in ICAC's front office for nearly two years is to have met so many people from so many different parts of the world.

Ries is an Indonesian volunteer married to a European. She feels sad when members of the international community complain that they have been unable to strike up close friendships with the locals. She volunteers to act as interpreter to newcomers and to facilitate newly arrived families to get familiar with their surroundings.

ICAC offers a four-day intensive program for newcomers to Jakarta, and Hello Jakarta is a six-hour crash course. ICAC courses that begin mid-March to May offer choices that are as diverse as the participants themselves, including cooking, computers and Chinese painting.

Two activities that are extremely popular concentrate on teaching domestic help the favorite cuisine of their employers and a language course that introduces basic vocabulary covering on-the-job topics, while Pak Faried offers higher levels of learning English.

Once members begin to feel relatively at home, many also branch out to help local people. Today, many Indonesians living in poverty face further hardships and are dependent on charity for their survival.

Until recently, sembako meant the nine essential foods in an Indonesian diet of rice, sugar, cooking oil, beans, salted fish, instant noodles, eggs, flour and milk. With the crisis, the nine have been reduced to five, which ICAC tries to provide to as many people as possible.

One of the many feathers in ICAC's cap is its decade-old scholarship program, supporting students from elementary to high school level.

Volunteer and community services coordinator Sri Lienau says, "With a large number of Indonesians affected by the economic crisis, the need for educational scholarships is even greater."

Sri feels that the country desperately needs people with skills who can train others. The country needs middle and high- level managers, professors and an educated population that can interact with other highly trained people from around the world.

"We need university graduates and cannot afford even a single dropout, particularly in these times of crisis," is her passionate plea.

At present, she has received donations totaling US$10,000 for her scholarship program but she could do with a lot more, even if it is still just enough so that handful are lucky enough to be able to improve their lot in life.

Knock, knock, is anyone listening?