Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Sri Lanka: Psychosocial programmes help children heal and make friends

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© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Posing
Children from many ethnic groups were affected by the tsunami, but the chance of meeting each other to share their experiences in this war-affected region is often slim.

By Leanne Mitchell

TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, December 2005,  - While their lives have taken many similar turns, it took a natural disaster for Rosinda, 11, and Ashar, 14, to become friends.

The two – who met at after school activities organised by UNICEF and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for children impacted by the 2004 tsunami – are what many would consider unlikely friends: Rosinda is a Tamil and Ashar a Muslim.

Their home district of Trincomalee – on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, an area hard hit by last year’s tsunami – is also in the process of recovering from a 20-year civil war that has led to a polarization of communities: Tamil, Muslim and Singhalese live in virtual isolation from each other.

Now a group of local community organizations is using the tsunami disaster as an opportunity for children and their families to move beyond the years of conflict…and get to know each other.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Posing
UNICEF volunteers coordinate games activities for all children. This ‘exposure visit’ gives tsunami-affected children the chance to play and meet others who have faced similar circumstances.

It was at one of these regular after school events – at which UNICEF and partner NGOs bring Tamil, Muslim and Singhalese children together for afternoons of games, drama, singing and sport – that Rosinda and Ashar met. 

The programme helps children confront and overcome the trauma and stress they have faced, and is also serving a longer-term peace-building purpose: for children such as Rosinda and Ashar, these meetings have provided a unique opportunity to learn about each other’s cultures and lives. The likelihood of their ever meeting under ‘normal’ circumstances would have been slim.

“In between these events we stay in touch by letter,” says Ashar, “and sometimes when we have Muslim festivals, I invite her to my home to celebrate with my family.

“I know about Tamil festivals as well, and on those occasions I send my best wishes and regards to her.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Tamil, Muslim and Singhalese children gather together to participate in after school activities in Gopalapuram, Trincomalee District.

Rosinda and Ashar’s friendship may be one small story in a long history of conflict and loss. But their story also demonstrates how a disaster may present a long-term
opportunity to build cross-cultural understanding, says Ms. R. Tharmini, from the Centre for Perfoming Arts in Trincomalee.

“This is an opportunity for our children to get together and share their experiences.  They will come to know more about each other, how they were affected, and how they can rebuild their lives. 

“Two decades of war worked well in keeping people in this district far apart from each other, but when the tsunami hit, people helped each other regardless of their
religious or ethnic background. We now have the opportunity to keep working on this feeling to build a lasting peace in this region.”


 

 

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UNICEF Correspondent Rob McBride reports on how programmes in Sri Lanka are helping tsunami-affected children recover from trauma and make new friends.

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Official updates

Children and the Tsunami, A Year On:
A Draft UNICEF Summary of What Worked [PDF]

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