A Buddhist vihara isn’t a place one expects to find a carnival atmosphere. But that’s very much the scene at the Sri Sudharmarama Temple in Madiha, during the last weekend in January. A three-day work camp, spearheaded by the Center for Peace Building and Reconciliation (CPBR) and funded by Mercy Corps - under a grant from the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance - turned the usual subdued complex into a hub of high-spirited activity.
Mercy Corps supported CPBR’s “Friends in Need” proposal, which outlined efforts to organize university students willing to serve three-months tours as volunteer relief workers in hard-hit villages across Sri Lanka, and to pull together other services for tsunami survivors.
A group of educators, psychologists and peace activists launched CPBR in 2002. The local non-profit now has six staff members and is led by Jayantha Seneviratne, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Kelaniya.
CPBR’s “Friends in Need” proposal was spearheaded by Project Director Dishani Jayaweera, a dynamic Colombo attorney who left the legal profession to answer a deeper calling. “From the time I was very small,” she says, “my interest has always been people. To be with people, and to be a friend to as many people as I can.”
Jayaweera says the group’s main objective is to create a network between grassroots organizations, regional universities and the community. “We’d like to ultimately give decision-making powers to the village, to empower the people who live here to design their own projects.”
This three-day program, in Madiha village in Matara district, is a pilot project for CPBR’s program.
In one temple building, an engaging American nurse diagnoses and treats, with good humor and infinite patience, a long queue of villagers. Beside her, a Sri Lankan psychologist counsels anxious locals, helping them come to terms with tsunami-related stress and depression. To his left, an eye doctor examines adults for cataracts. Vision tests are conducted across the room; the 101 people in need will receive free eyeglasses. Later, there will be a distribution of non-food items; 411 households will receive new cooking sets, and 25 expectant mothers will take home pillows and foam mattresses as well.
And that’s just the adults. Next door, in the assembly room, scores of children bend intently over drawing paper. Art is powerful therapy, as a glance through their sketches reveals. The majority are cheerful seascapes and sunrises; but in a dozen of the sketches, huge waves engulf homes and trees, while victims bob in fiercely crayoned seas.
These art activities have been arranged by the Tsunami Relief Foundation, a bare-bones NGO under the direction of a tall, slim filmmaker named Timothy Senavirajne. During the course of the day, he and his small cadre of volunteers lead the children in creative activities ranging from drama to sculpture and each child leaves the temple complex with a daypack full of school supplies, candy, and toys. All told, 234 children receive school kits.
Meanwhile, the CPBR work camp – the centerpiece of this project – is in full swing in the nearby village. More than 50 student volunteers from Ruhuna and Kelaniya universities clear the ground around fallen houses, moving broken tiles and fallen bricks into bulldozer-ready heaps. Smaller teams, with more specific skills, repair lightly damaged homes and clean wells contaminated with salt water (both efforts were assisted by Lanka Shakti, a journalists’ and artists’ organization associated with CPBR). The work is slow, but steady. By wrap-up on Sunday afternoon, the joint effort will have cleared more than 20 compounds, repaired five homes, and sweetened 35 wells.
Four faiths are represented among the students and residents working here – Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim – illustrating the core of CPBR’s mission: “To provide emotional and communal harmony, and a Sri Lanka at peace.” This seed is nurtured by the understanding that ongoing rebuilding projects supported by Mercy Corps will continue, well after the long weekend has ended.