Volunteers: Heart and soul of Sri Lanka's tsunami response
27 June 2005
by Rukshan Ratnam and Paruru Lawrence
A serious looking bearded young man glances up from his work and rises to greet us as we enter the Red Cross Red Crescent office in Pottovil, a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka. Dilshard Ahamed, 22 is the emergency unit coordinator for the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) Ampara branch.
Until six months ago, he worked in his family-owned guesthouse. In his quiet manner he explains that while he only recently joined the Red Cross as a staff member, he has been involved with the Red Cross for eight years, the last two as an active volunteer.
“I enjoy helping people and I thought the Red Cross in Sri Lanka was doing a great job, so I decided to become a volunteer,” Dilshard says.
Dilshard and his family moved east from the capital Colombo only a few years ago to run the family business his grandfather began 27 years ago. His mother and uncles took over the business and, until the disaster of 26 December, it was run by Dilshard and his cousins.
In an area well-known as a magnet for travelers and tourists, The Mermaid’s Rest Beach Resort enjoyed a prime location on a picturesque beach in the small village of Ulla, known throughout the surfing world as Arugam Bay.
When the tsunami struck, the resort was filled with guests, so many of Dilshard’s family members were on hand to assist with the workload. Happily, the entire family and all the guests survived even though the resort itself was destroyed. The only reminders that a hotel once stood on the devastated site are the foundations and a signboard bearing the name of the hotel. Dilshard’s home, a few hundred metres from the beach, was spared the wrath of the crashing waves that devastated almost two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline.
Drawing on his Red Cross training in first aid, rescue and, later on, relief distribution, Dilshard was keen to help. “After I made sure that everyone at the hotel was alright, I began to help the rescue effort. Together with other volunteers we provided a lot of first aid,” he recalls.
As the impact and extent of the devastation became known it also became clear to Ampara branch executive officer Sunil Dissanayake there would be a great demand for skilled volunteers, explains Dilshard. He helped set up an emergency unit and trained volunteers in First Aid. With assistance from American Red Cross, the extra SLRCS volunteers also underwent training in relief distribution. It was fortunate, says Dilshard, that earlier in the year selected volunteers had also attended the psychosocial training college in Jaffna in the north of the country.
"I saw the destruction the tsunami caused in that short space of time and I wanted to help all those people who were affected. All of the volunteers who are involved with Red Cross feel the same way", he explains.
Today Dilshard works closely with delegates from Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies from around the world who have come to Sri Lanka to help with relief and recovery programs. Together with his team of dedicated young volunteers, Dilshard is often seen on the road traveling between camps of internally displaced people, supervising a relief distribution, or assisting his Red Cross Red Crescent colleagues.
What are Dilshard’s plans for the future? "I am happy that the work I do has such a positive impact on the lives of the people of this district. There are tangible results of our work. I am happy too that I am contributing towards the development of my country and the Red Cross Society", he says. "I plan to stay involved with the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement for as long as possible and hopefully realise my dream of becoming a water and sanitation specialist."