Diane Faires - Sri Lanka
Lately I’ve had several hands-on educational experiences in the field of International Development, taking me back to my college days as an International Studies major.
One involved being a chaperone for a small aid project undertaken by my students. Thirty senior students at Jaffna College were given the responsibility for visiting a tsunami victims’ camp, talking with the victims to assess their needs, and then planning and implementing a relief project in the camp, using funds donated to the College by several alumni. The students were very excited about this opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of others, as they don’t often have the chance to do such hands-on, practical learning activities. The students were given full responsibility for all decisions and tasks.
We first visited the Kudathany tsunami camp, on the east coast of the Jaffna peninsula, on Feb. 22. The Jaffna College students had the unique ability to connect with the children in the camp, being close in age. Also, many of our students had themselves experienced living in a camp for a few months in 1995, when they had to flee their homes during the war. The students enthusiastically went about their interviews, dividing into groups of two or three, each group spending several hours visiting and playing with young people in the camp, hearing about their experiences, challenges, and needs. The thirty students had divided into subgroups, each responsible for gathering information from specific age groups: infants (0 – 6), school children (7 – 11), teenagers (12- 18), and families (in particular the families’ aspirations for the future). The stories of the tsunami survivors made a big impression on the students, and they interacted with the victims in a compassionate way. The Jaffna College team left with a strong desire to improve the situation of the people in Kudathany.
Unfortunately, our visit was timed badly because the students started their final exams a few days later, so the next phase of the project was postponed a few weeks. Eventually, the subgroups gathered again, and they compiled really excellent reports about their interviews. Then each subgroup made a list of items it felt were most needed by that particular age group, purchased the items, and arranged to deliver them. Some of the adults involved were a bit disappointed that in the end, the students only chose to buy very simple items to hand out. In their initial excitement after the visit, they had discussed doing a larger-scale effort, like trying to get more toilets built in the camp, arranging extra classes for the children, etc… But we didn’t want to interfere in the students’ control of the project.
In early April, the students returned to Kudathany with their relief items. They had chosen to prepare school bags for the effected youth, which contained school supplies, toys, and toiletries. For each family, they prepared a family pack containing items such as cleaning supplies, food covers, wastebaskets, and insect repellant. Upon arrival at the Kudathany school, the Jaffna College team discovered that only a few hours earlier, another relief group had distributed school bags and supplies to the children, and the principal was very reluctant to accept additional school bags, since they had nowhere to store them in their makeshift school buildings. In addition, when we first visited the camp, there were 79 families living there, but since then, the number had jumped to over 200 families. The JC students were very disappointed that their project had hit these obstacles, but they came together to discuss the alternatives. After much debate, considering both the intentions of the donors and the most productive use of the items, the project team made a decision. They gave the family packs to the people living in the Kudathany camp. The residents were organized into groups of 10 families, so we distributed a few family packs to each group to share among their members.
At the recommendation of the local pastor, we distributed the school bags and supplies to children in a nearby camp for people displaced by the war. Although many relief groups have been distributing aid to the tsunami victims, the war refugees have received little assistance, and live in conditions just as difficult. The children in this camp were very grateful for the items, and the students were satisfied with the results of the project, despite the unexpected changes. But they certainly learned that a short turnaround time is required in relief work, and to stay in communication with the people involved, to keep up with changes in numbers and needs.
Diane serves as a Global Mission Intern by the Common Global Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She teaches English and participates in community-based work.