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A new school and new hope for a family struck by the tsunami

Children outside the new Zahira primary school in Hambantota

By Francis Mead

The wave of destruction that swept through Hambantota – a town known for its fishing industry on Sri Lanka’s south coast – is still visible today in patches. On the sea front you can find the odd building with smashed walls and exposed brickwork; or the crushed prow of a boat stuck into the earth at a crazy angle.

On 26 December, 2004, the tsunami that caused that wave of destruction also swept through the back wall of Zahira school, located less than 300 yards from the shore. Since it was Sunday, the school wasn’t in session and, in fact, the open market on Hambantota’s main street took the full brunt of the waves. Nevertheless, Zahira school suffered enormously. The principal, five teachers and 98 children died that day.

One of those five teachers was the mother of ten-year-old Fawzana. Today she lives with her father, who has recently remarried, and her two sisters in a small house about half a mile from the town centre. Fawzana’s father, Farook, says he knows when his daughter is missing her mother because she becomes very silent. “I’m always giving her some work, something to play with, so that she’s not alone for too long,” he says. “Sometimes when she goes to sleep she becomes very silent again.”

Despite their terrible loss, Fawzana and her family seem to have found a measure of comfort and stability in their current daily routine. Farook helps cut bread for Fawzana’s breakfast, while she sleepily brushes her hair and gets her school books ready. Then, with his daughters and their school friends in the back, Farook drives the family’s three-wheeler the short distance to school.

Since the tsunami, a new Zahira primary school has risen around the old school yard, an area devastated by the tsunami. It’s sturdily built, with high, protective walls and it has an effective electrical system, which the old building lacked. In one new room, rows of computers wait for children to start working the keyboards. Zahira, which serves 500 students, is also equipped with modern, and separate, toilet facilities for girls and boys, again, unlike the previous structure.

Zahira is one of thirty five new schools UNICEF is helping build in Sri Lanka following the tsunami. Next door, builders are hard at work on a new secondary school.

In Hambantota, as elsewhere, a school has an importance beyond its bricks and mortar. “In the aftermath of the disaster you have to consider the psychological factor. You know when the students get back to school they have the opportunity of sharing their experience,” says S. M. Risham, an English teacher at Zahira. “At the same time they can get a valuable education so that they’ll be able to stand on their own feet.”

Fawzana and her classmates haven’t forgotten the tsunami: she says she’s sometimes afraid of the sea, especially if it’s rough. But she is also beginning to turn her mind to the future. “I want to be a teacher because I want to follow my mother. I want to see other children studying and I want to help them do that in the future.”

Back on the sea-front, new fishing boats form a colourful arc along the shoreline, a strong sign that the local industry is fully restored. And just as Hambantota’s fishing fleet is a vital economic lifeline, its schools are anchors for the whole community.

For Fawzana personally, the revival of Zahira school represents a new start and new hope.



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