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Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Sri Lanka: Seven siblings reunited

© UNICEF/2005/Burlingame
UNICEF Social Worker Thambipillai Sarojini plays with siblings Nishanthini, Nirojan, Niranjan and Sarivina.

By Tani Ruiz

BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka, 4 June 2005 – They play with each other like pups. Sometimes they even spar. But even when they quarrel, these seven Sri Lankan siblings are just happy to be together again. Losing both their parents and their home in the tsunami was terrible enough without the added pain of being split up.

“Sometimes I get a little mad with my brothers and sister, but really, I'm so glad that we've found each other again,” says 12-year-old Nishanthini. She has two younger and three older brothers, plus a five-year-old sister, the baby.

The children come from Navalady, which was a village of around 600 families in Sri Lanka's eastern Batticaloa district. After the tsunami they were taken in by an uncle, who lost all his family in the disaster apart from one son. Unable to cope, he placed each of the seven children with different people, mostly distant relatives. Nishanthini was put in an orphanage.

That they have found a caring and nurturing home – together – was no stroke of luck but a determined effort by UNICEF staff, helping to implement a new Government-run fostering programme for children left adrift and orphaned by the tsunami.

© UNICEF/2005/Burlingame
Nishanthini is back in school, thanks to UNICEF protection and education programmes.

UNICEF Reintegration Manager Patrick Halton had befriended these kids before the tsunami and knew their parents. After the disaster, Patrick alerted UNICEF social worker Thambipillai Sarojini and staff from the Department of Probation and Childcare Services, and asked if they could find the children. Doggedly, they set about putting together each piece of the puzzle – which meant locating each child, one by one, in a district not only battered by the waves, but also on the frontlines of a two-decade long conflict.

The first child Sarojini found was eight-year-old Niranjan, who was living with a distant relative. He wasn't going to school and had become withdrawn. Niranjan told her about his 10-year-old brother, Nirojan. Within two weeks, working with a local probation officer, Sarojini had solved the mystery of the whereabouts of each child. It was the children themselves, asked where they wanted to be, who chose their aunt Thevika.

Thevika is the wife of one of the children's uncles. She, her husband Ganeshan and three teenage sons live in a modest two-room dwelling in Batticaloa.

For Thevika, a gentle, wise soul, the decision to assume a parental role for seven more children required little reflection. “Reuniting these children was a responsibility that I took seriously. These children had already suffered enough without having to also grow up isolated from each other,” she says.

Thevika is one of 40 so-called ‘Fit Persons’ in Batticaloa district who have been legally approved as foster parents. There are approximately 650 ‘separated’ children registered in Batticaloa district whose parents died in the tsunami but who do have living relatives. The 40 foster parents approved under the ‘Fit Persons’ scheme take care of 85 children. Another 60 ‘Fit Persons’ cases are pending.

Foster parents are identified and nominated by probation officers. Once they have passed muster with the magistrate, they are eligible to receive 500 rupees ($5) per month per child fostered, which is provided by UNICEF.

There is not a strong tradition of fostering in Sri Lanka, where orphans and even children with parents are commonly placed in orphanages, mainly because of poverty. But there is a move towards community-based care for childen, which is a key part of UNICEF’s child protection work.

Sarojini makes regular visits to check on Thevika and see how her foster children are faring. So does Patrick, with whom the children clearly have a strong bond.

“They are doing well. They are so much better being together,” Sarojini says, echoed by Thevika. “Before, they were really hurting. Of course they miss their parents, but they have improved a lot since coming back together again,” she says.

Nishanthini loves going to school and has every intention of completing her education – a plan which has Thevika’s full support. The foster mother wants all her nieces and nephews to finish their studies and get good jobs. “Their parents had dreams of them becoming teachers or doctors. I want them to fulfill those dreams,” she says.



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