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WORLD

Volunteers find a new home

In disaster's wake, two Americans remain in Thailand

From Aneesh Raman
CNN

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The rebuilding effort in the southern Thailand village of Ban Namkem.

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BAN NAMKEM, Thailand (CNN) -- When Justin Strauss saw reports of an Asian tsunami, he gave more than a donation -- he gave himself.

Leaving his construction job in Hilltown, Pennsylvania, the former Peace Corps volunteer signed up again, bringing his skills to Thailand's hardest hit villages as a volunteer with Crisis Corp.

"I knew I'd be facing a lot of difficulties as far as sights and stories of what I'd hear here and I'm glad I did it," he said recently in southern Thailand.

For three months Strauss has lived and labored among tsunami survivors, building homes on a landscape ravaged by the waves. He has also been building relationships with people who have nothing left.

One such person is 63-year-old Chamnan Utamang, who lost 11 family members to the tsunami. In its aftermath he has gained an unlikely friend in Strauss.

"I was told about his story and told that he was working by himself," Strauss said. "And to me that was a perfect partner to work with, to try and lend a hand."

Every day, Strauss joins Chamnan to work together in the Thai village of Ban Namkem, and every day the two grow closer.

Chamnan calls Justin Strauss his son, and Strauss calls the village his second home.

The work in the village is incredibly difficult. Along with the lack of infrastructure, the monsoon season means that when it is not raining it is almost unbearably hot.

Strauss has been in similar situations before, but for some other volunteers it is the first time they have experienced these sort of conditions.

Songwriter Dana Underwood came to Thailand to comfort survivors. She had never done humanitarian work before and she had never seen such devastation.

"When I saw this (the tsunami disaster), everything that happened was on such a grand scale, and so horrifying that I just knew that even if I couldn't affiliate with someone I could go and lift a bucket," she said.

It has now been five months since Underwood arrived, and her mother came over to Thailand from Chicago recently, hoping to take her daughter home.

But Dana Underwood is staying. She believes that counseling the displaced is more important today than it was the day after the disaster.

"The shock is starting to wear off of what happened, and depression is starting to set in," she says.

"You can just sort of see people wonder why things are taking so long and wonder why people have forgotten what's gone on here."

Tens of thousands of international volunteers have made their way through southern Thailand, each with their own story, each with their own reason for coming, each with their own lessons learned.

"If you can help somebody you should -- even if you can't, if you think you can't afford it, and you don't know how it's going to work out, you just do it anyway," Underwood says.

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