Orphans no more & and back in school - a tale of two sisters
By Pallava Bagla
Akkirapettai village, Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India, 22 December 2005 - Hope sustains amidst life’s debris. Their home washed away, parents dead, all belongings engulfed by the unforgiving waters of Bay of Bengal yet the two orphan sisters have some thing to look forward to. Today the girls are being looked after by their elder paternal uncle Mr. C. Kaathan (38). Care of orphaned children by the extended family rather than institutionalized care in orphanages is strongly recommended by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as it leads to happier upbringing.
Life came to a standstill on 26 December 2004 for Rupavathy (15), a student of Grade IX and her sibling Bhuvaneshwari (13) of Grade VIII, when the tsunami swept away their father Mr. C. Anjappan (30) and their mother Mrs. C. Vasanthi (28) from their house in the village of Akkirapettai in Nagapattinam district of the state of Tamil Nadu. This region witnessed the death of over 7000 people on that dreaded Sunday morning.
The scars of the tsunami were so intense that Rupavathy dropped out of school for a year and has only last week rejoined the Church of South India Higher Secondary School in Nagapattinam after an extended counselling session supported by UNICEF. Talking about the traumatic experience, Rupavathy says `It is unbelievable that a year has passed since the tsunami. It almost seems as if my parents were with me till a few days ago.’
Both the girls are being looked after by the extended family and seem to be adjusting well. Their uncle Kaathan has two children of his own – a son Ram Kumar (13) and a daughter Sukanya (10) - to look after on the meagre Rupees 2000 he earns every month as a helper on a fishing boat. All six of them live in a one room temporary shelter, provided by a voluntary organization, in a narrow lane in Akkiapettai village. Bhuvaneshwari says she is still scared and often hears the roar of the ocean which gives her nightmares. But she enjoys going back to school, under the Building Back Better programme of UNICEF, and meeting her class mates who understand her personal grief.
Their uncle, now foster father, is not required to pay any school fees, which have been waived by the school. The two orphaned sisters will each get cash compensation of Rupees 500,000 (about US$ 10,000) on turning 18, as has been announced by the Indian government.
"It is a fulfilling achievement to see the girls back in school" says Mr. N. Jayaraman a sociologist and counselor with the UNICEF supported Nehru Yuva Kendra who made many visits to their uncle’s home to convince the older sibling to continue with her education. With a heavy heart he adds "It will take a long time for the entire healing process to be over … if at all."