04 April 2005
The air is full of dust as energetic Sri Lanka Red Cross volunteers carry tsunami debris away from a destroyed house. Every day, ten houses in Beruwala are cleaned up by Red Cross and community volunteers. Their work helps identify basic needs and immediate solutions, speeding up the mental and physical recovery of the affected communities.
The Belgium Red Cross, together with the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC), has been running an integrated project in Beruwala in the tsunami-affected district of Kalutara since February.
Project activities consist of cleaning up the community area, house construction and psychosocial support. Several hundred houses will be constructed as part of the project.
The interaction of the volunteers with the community is proving an effective means of identifying needs and providing support.
"During the cleaning we have a golden opportunity to be with people. We get to know them well and if they feel sad we can help them and make them understand that they are not alone," says SLRC team leader Priyanthi Athukoralla.
Belgian Red Cross psychosocial delegate Sylvaine Courbiere agrees.
"When you discuss with people, you see that their main need often is housing. But there are also a lot of little needs". "These needs may appear small but they can make a big difference in helping people return to normality," she says.
An ear to listen
The needs and challenges faced by people are numerous. Identity cards and birth certificates were washed away, some people lack a mattress, others need milk or a school uniform, or have health problems. Widows have no money and have children to take care of.
Help is available both from within the community and external agencies such as NGOs.
Neighbours have banded together to help to organise kindergartens while NGOs have various projects running distributing relief items and addressing needs.
While plenty of assistance is available, in the wake of the disaster some people don't have the energy to start rebuilding their lives. The Sri Lanka Red Cross and community volunteers are providing a vital service establishing the link between needs and resources. They are a listening ear to affected people, helping them regain momentum in their lives.
"People are mentally down when it is dirty everywhere. We help them clean up and we also listen," says SLRCS volunteer T.D. Buddika Saman Kumara. "There are physical needs, but people also want to talk about their experiences, nightmares and feelings of insecurity."
What is a tsunami?
To date, 30 Red Cross volunteers and a further 30 community volunteers have participated in the project. During March, 12 SLRC volunteers were further trained to provide psychosocial in addition to their community cleaning activities. A component of the training is to ensure understanding of the causes and consequences of the tsunami.
"What is a tsunami, and how do the communities that you have worked with understand this phenomenon?" Belgium Red Cross' Sylvaine asks the 12 SLRC volunteers.
One of the participants points out that some of the affected people believe the disaster was caused by something they did, and that the tsunami happened as a punishment.
As Sylvaine discusses with the volunteers, she draws a sketch on the whiteboard where circles of waves spread from the earthquake epicentre until they hit Sri Lanka's beaches.
"It is very important to provide people with accurate information. This can help the person cope with the disaster and understand that it is not his or her fault," she says.
The SLRC and the Federation have committed to reconstructing 15,000 houses in the hardest hit districts of Sri Lanka. But just as important as walls and roofs is the understanding and ability to listen of volunteers both from the Sri Lanka Red Cross and the community.