Return to Normality on the Cards for Sri Lanka's Tsunami Survivors

If you happen to visit the southern Sri Lankan town of Matara one of these days, it’s more than likely you’ll bump into a group of bright-eyed youngsters clutching white envelopes. Smartly turned out in jeans and T-shirts, they have a purposeful look about them. And if your guess is that they are on a mission, possibly canvassing for some cause, you’re not very far off the mark.

These children - aged between eight and 18 - began a sales campaign a little before Christmas but they’re not selling the usual greeting cards for the festive season. Instead the Matara kids are offering something very special. In fact it is unique - two types of cards commemorating the December 2004 tsunami.

What makes these cards particularly special is that they feature two pictures painted by children from a couple of shelter sites established for tsunami survivors in the district. What’s more, the young sales team also consists of children from these camps.

IOM helped youth from the camps organise an art competition some weeks ago.

“The competition was meant to pay tribute to those who experienced devastation and loss on that tragic day one year ago,’’ says Erandana Hemawardena from IOM Matara’s psychosocial programme. “Tsunami-affected children and youth in welfare centres throughout Matara district participated in the contest.” And the theme was ‘Life one year after the tsunami’.

Two of the best entries were selected for the tsunami commemoration cards now on sale. Each costs 20 Sri Lankan rupees, which is less than 20 US cents.

“The profits are to be used for recreational and educational activities for us,” says 18-year-old S.H Arunika, a resident of one of the IOM-administered camps for tsunami-affected people. “We are all excited about this project. IOM staff have told us we’ll be able to visit the zoo in Colombo soon with the money we’re collecting!”

The children say that besides providing opportunities for leisure activities like this, the project is also helping them gain confidence and to work together as a team.

That apparently was the idea, says Juan Valdivieso, project officer at IOM’s Matara office. “The children not only get to express themselves through art but at the same time, the activity teaches them certain skills to develop a project of their own. And of course, it generates some fun too!”

The art competition and the sale of cards are part of IOM’s psychosocial programme, which aims to help the survivors recover from the psychological and emotional effects of the 2004 tsunami and to bring back some sense of normality to their lives.

The one-year commemorative events and activities include a cricket tournament for children living in transitional shelter sites built both by IOM and other agencies in the entire district as well as Buddhist religious ceremonies, with the ideas for the activities coming from the communities themselves.

“People who are living in these shelters are coming together as a community and showing that they are able to enjoy the recreational, cultural and religious activities they did before the tsunami despite the hardships they have faced over the past year,” Valdivieso adds.