by Rukshan Ratnam, International Federation, Sri Lanka
When the tsunami ravaged almost two thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline, more than 5,000 Red Cross volunteers from all over the country responded, helping to rescue people, recover bodies, and distribute food, clothing, tents and non-food relief items.
Today, volunteers continue to be involved in almost all aspects of the Red Cross Red Crescent post-tsunami recovery programme, including first aid and community based healthcare.
In addition, they’ve become involved in several areas that are new to the Sri Lanka Red Cross, such providing psychosocial support to affected community members, monitoring and cleaning wells, purifying and distributing water, carrying out needs assessments and supporting livelihood initiatives.
“It’s hard work, but it is also very satisfying when you see the smiles on the people’s faces when they thank the Red Cross,” says Kathija, a volunteer for the SLRCS, who works on a livelihoods project in Ampara. “To have the opportunity to bring hope and change to people’s lives makes me feel that I am doing something useful,” she adds.
It is not always easy, though, and volunteers are not always welcomed with open arms. Kathija describes how a widow chased her away when she knocked on her door to conduct a household survey.
“The woman said several people had visited her but none had returned to help,” Kathija explains. “I was chased away and told never to come back”.
But Kathija did go back and eventually managed to gain the woman’s trust after repeatedly reassuring her that the Red Cross genuinely wanted to help. “We gave her a grinding machine to make flour and today, she is one of the Red Cross’ biggest fans,” she says.
Many volunteers were directly affected by the tsunami themselves and continue to live in temporary shelters located in transitional camps. For them, working with affected communities provides a sense of purpose and helps them to recover from their own personal tragedies.
Subatheepan, who works with the Danish Red Cross psychosocial programme in Kalmunai, is one such volunteer.
“I lost my mother in the tsunami,” says Subatheepan. “So I find that I can better relate to the feelings of the people we work with because I too feel the loss of a loved one.
“I think that this has helped me in understanding and responding to people’s needs,” he adds. “It has also helped me to cope with the loss of my mother.”
Mohideen Muzamil is another volunteer turned Sri Lanka Red Cross staffer. He was first recruited by the Swedish Red Cross Emergency Response Unit in Pottuvil to assist with translating. A year and a half later, he now coordinates the Federation’s well monitoring and cleaning project in Pottuvil division.
“I lost my house in the tsunami,” he says. “But my work with the Red Cross has given me a fresh start in life and it also gives me a sense of satisfaction to know that I am contributing to the recovery of my own community.”