Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Sri Lanka: Young doctors volunteer for community healing

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© UNICEF video
Play activities are an important part of the trauma recovery programme.

By Feizal Samath

GALLE, Sri Lanka, 21 June 2005  – Twelve-year-old Vishara Madushan is no more afraid of the sea. Vishara fled his home in southern Sri Lanka on 26 December as the surging waters swallowed everything in their path. Six months later, a trauma recovery programme staffed by volunteers who are recent medical graduates has helped him overcome lingering fears.

Referring to the volunteers, he says, “These ‘akkis’ [elder sisters] have helped us to forget and move on in life. I bathe in the sea at least once a week now. I’m getting used to it.”

UNICEF funded the programme in order to help children recover from the trauma of the tsunami disaster that took the lives of more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka. Originally set to run for only 3 months, the programme has been renewed and expanded, to address the needs of whole communities.

Community needs

Deepani Jasinghe is a 28-year-old medical graduate and one of the volunteers. As she walks through Medawatte village in the southern district of Galle, an old man comes up, points at a polluted canal and pleads, “Please, Miss, can you help clean this stinking drain?”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Dr. Mahindadasa holds a tsunami survivor.

Deepani smiles and promises to inform the local authorities. “They come to us with all their problems,” she says.

UNICEF Child Protection Officer Sarah Graham says the programme, developed by a university in southern Sri Lanka, was created to help children recover from trauma by means of guided play activity, dancing, games and singing. But the needs in Sri Lanka are rapidly changing.

“The children have shown a lot of resilience. Now we need to look at the needs of the family so that the family can help create a living home environment that will allow children to be children again,” she says.

Bonds of caring

Esha Mahindadasa is another medical graduate who volunteered for the programme. She seized the chance to help when she spotted a notice at her university many miles away in Sri Lanka’s central region.

“There was a call for volunteers to help, and this fitted my need to help the people in my village,” says the newly-qualified doctor, who has an eight-month-old boy.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Families affected by the tsunami visit a relief centre.

“The bigger issue here is that the victims need permanent homes. They are very unstable without proper houses. Alcohol and drug abuse is rampant and we are trying to deal with these issues too.”

On 1 June, Esha and Deepani began work at the southern university as assistant lecturers in the Department of Surgery. But their volunteer work has not ended.

Deepani described how a group of tsunami-affected villagers and their children visited her during the traditional Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s celebrations in April. They had bought sweetmeats and other food as a token of their appreciation. Deepani is determined to continue working with the community on weekends. “We are very close and I just can’t let them down.”

“We are very happy over the progress of the programme,” UNICEF’s Sarah Graham says. “We have people from the community who are able to recognize the issues and solve problems. These volunteers are not counsellors – they are there to recognize the issues and in that sense we are quite successful.”


 

 

Video

23 June 2005:
UNICEF representative for Sri Lanka, Ted Chaiban, discusses the tsunami response and ongoing relief efforts 6 months after tragedy struck the country.

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14 June 2005:
UNICEF New York correspondent Chris Niles reports on the medical graduates who are working with tsunami survivors in southern Sri Lanka.

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