Helping vulnerable groups in Sri Lanka -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Helping vulnerable groups in Sri Lanka

By Prashan Fernando

For more than 30 years, a group of Telugu-speaking people had been leading a nomadic life on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Originally from South India, they are now naturalized Sri Lankans though they are without an important document—an identity card that is vital to avoid arrest in a conflict-torn area.

Called gypsies because of their itinerant lifestyle, many of them neither registered their marriages nor the births of their children. Without the necessary certificates, they could not apply for an identity card that would have meant greater ease of passage in the security zone where they lived.

The gypsies who settled in and around the Surivallipuram village in the eastern Ampara district of Sri Lanka were trapped in a life of poverty and internal displacement brought on by the long years of civil war. Then the tsunami hit in December 2004, making their reality grimmer. Most of the people were living under trees or in cardboard makeshift houses. Toilet facilities were non-existent, and drinking water was taken from a nearby canal. After the tsunami, about 20 of some 70 families in the village were provided with temporary shelters by a nongovernmental organization. Made of cement blocks and asbestos roofs, these shelters were ripped apart when a cyclone struck the village in May 2006, leaving these families vulnerable again to the elements.

As the parents often have to travel out of the village to earn some money in palm-reading or snake-charming, children often dropped out of school to care for their younger siblings, cook, clean and collect water for household use. Without the empowerment of education, the younger generation would have to fall back on the same trades that their parents were in. The cycle of poverty continued.

According to a village elder, most men and women in the village also enjoyed illicit liquor at night, to drown their sorrows. The smoking of ganja (or marijuana) is also a common practice to help them have a good night’s sleep.

In early 2008, Habitat for Humanity came to the village to help tsunami-affected families rebuild their homes and lives. With nearly US$330,000 funding from Tear Fund UK, HFH Sri Lanka built 250 sq. ft. houses for each of the 70 families, installed solar light panels, provided solar cookers and taught the families to recycle garbage as compost for their home gardens.

Six months after moving into their Habitat homes, there is a visible difference. According to community leader Silva, people are beginning to want to spend more time at home since they now have a decent place to live in. Those who travel out of the village for most of the month to work return quickly. Families can now send their children to a nearby school.

In the past, some people in the village used to hunt or fish for sustenance while others would turn to begging. With such meager choices, most of the families are surviving on less than US$1 a day. Now the families are able to cultivate home gardens and raise small livestock, ensuring a more permanent and sustainable source of income.

Silva told a Habitat representative: “No one gave us land before. We are very happy now to receive your houses. As you can see many have spent their own money to put up curtains; others are cooking using your solar cookers and our outlook has changed.

Traditional sources of livelihood are still affected. “Hunting, fishing and tourism are all down now leaving us with no option but to beg.” But noting the abundance of grazing land in the area, Silva commented, “If a livelihood in animal husbandry can be provided, that is the best we ask, not forgetting the increase in the supply of water.”

Due to the recurring drought, HFH Sri Lanka is exploring ways to improve water supply in the dry season.

Surveying the positive changes around him, Silva, speaking on behalf of the 70 families, concluded: “We are here to stay.”

Prashan Fernando currently is manager of Resource Development and Public Relations at Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka. He has also worked with several other Sri Lankan NGOs.

Before he moved into the non-profit world, Fernando worked in the field of Information Technology, serving in England for 12 years, and then leading a blue chip company in Sri Lanka.