Along the beachfront road in Kinniya, on the corner beside the gutted remains of Kinniya District Hospital, a hand-lettered sign has been nailed to a tree:
It may seem presumptuous, even preposterous, to designate this spot as the crux of last December’s disaster. But no one who has wandered through the ruins of the hospital (where 499 of the 500 patients lost their lives) or walked along the main road, where the tsunami’s high-water mark is etched above shattered doorways, will contest the sentiment.
It is impossible to know with certainty how the children of Kinniya and the surrounding villages will be changed by the things they have witnessed, and by the losses they have suffered. One imagines the worst. So it’s an unexpected surprise to approach a play area near a refugee camp in Faizal Nagar, and see 20 children standing in a circle -- imitating their favorite animals.
One by one, encouraged by Mujajeer, a 19-year-old “animator” from the Team of Youth for Development, Understanding, and Progress (TYDUP), the boys and girls enter the circle and perform.
A girl in a red dress drops to her knees, and creeps through the circle mewing like a cat; another dances into the center, scratching and hooting like a monkey. A 9-year-old enters, baa-ing like a sheep. Cows and parrots, dogs and crows, all make their appearance. The moment that exercise is over, the kids – serenaded by Mujajeer – begin a spirited game of “musical crabs.”
“It’s like musical chairs,” explains the theatrical Mujajeer. “But with no music, and no chairs.”
Drama, non-competitive games, role-playing and sports activities are all part of “Project Rapid Response.” The two-month program, designed to benefit more than 600 children and their families, was proposed by TYDUP and funded by Mercy Corps, with funding from the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
TYDUP was formed in 2001 to support children affected by Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war. After the tsunami, Program Manager Philip Murugiah, based in Trincomalee, began to develop a series of programs designed to help children whose lives were derailed by the Tsunami.
“There are nine animators, and two field officers trained by Action Aid India,” says the high-energy Murugiah. They learned basic strategies for working with children: how to start up recreational activities and to go about leading children away from the disaster and back into their normal processes.”
The parents, Murugiah points out, have been overwhelmed with their own concerns, like rebuilding their homes and vocations. But they must also take an active hand in supporting their children.
“The training also enhanced their capacity to work with the families of these children in the welfare centers, and show how the parents can support their children, and help them start afresh,” Murugiah says.
Education is a central component of the TYDUP project. Children’s studies were, of course, interrupted by the tsunami, and some schools in affected areas did not re-open until February. Taking this into account, “Operation Rapid Impact” includes not just theater and sports, but an interactive curriculum to helps kids catch up on their math and language skills.
As I leave the play area at Faizal Nagar, the children interrupt a singing contest and break into a spontaneous chorus of “Nandri! Nandri!” – the Tamil word for “Thanks!” Boys and girls surround me, thrusting out their palms for handshakes and high-fives. The animators grin, and offer the same sentiment. But I’m just a musical crab, darting from one project to the next. Their kudos belong to Mercy Corps, who is helping to bring comfort, encouragement and solidarity to the kids of Tsunami Junction.