A fisherman’s wife, tsunami survivor, refugee activist…and future teacher?
I first met Chaini Patabandige six months after Sri Lanka’s tsunami. A fisherman’s wife, Chaini was only twenty years old when she became responsible for administering her refugee camp – the only woman in the southern Sri Lankan area of Galle in such a position. She immediately impressed me with her immaculate appearance, sparkling white blouse, and with her air of calm and quiet organization.
A school exercise book she showed us held meticulous records of what had been given to the families in her care. Next to many of the family names were black crosses, a sad reminder of those who had not survived the tsunami. Chaini’s father was one of the fishermen who had not returned from the sea.
I first went to the refugee camp with a friend who was giving a large sum of money to Chaini to distribute to tsunami survivors. She told me of Chaini’s reputation for being able to allocate goods fairly.
Chaini welcomed us to her ‘home.’ I was shocked to discover that she was living with her husband and nephew in a very small tent – not even a family-sized one. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live for eight months in the stifling heat and humidity. Chaini decided that the money would be best spent on buying sewing machines for the school, as more people would benefit if the students could learn a livelihood. Over several visits, we became friends, and before I left Sri Lanka I promised her that I would do what I could in Abu Dhabi to raise awareness of how people were still living eight months after the tsunami.
When I returned to Abu Dhabi Men’s College, colleagues rallied around to help me achieve this goal. Paul Rawcliffe, a CommTech teacher, was instrumental in sending Abdullah Al Bastaki, Naif Al Mansouri and Ibrahim Al Ali to make a 30- minute, award-winning documentary entitled ‘Facing the Inevitable’. This 2005 film examined the relationship between volunteers and the local community and their responses to disasters such as the tsunami. It was based on the work of Project Galle 2005, a volunteer group which had been building temporary houses for the thousands of people still in tents, and for which I had worked one summer.
The film was followed by a sponsored skydive by students and teachers organized by Eamonn McCormick, CERT Senior Manager Steve Alison and student Awadh Al Braik which raised more than 40,000 Dirhams – enough to build twenty-seven temporary houses for Project Galle.
In January 2006, I returned to Sri Lanka to report on how the building was progressing and presented the money to Project Galle 2006. Chaini and her family were now living in a temporary house built for them by Project Galle. Located near the railway line, the house was very cramped and Chaini was looking forward to eventually moving into a permanent house.
In February 2007 I was asked to present at the Education Without Borders 2007 conference. The theme of this year’s conference was “Innovative Solutions to Global Challenges” and my presentation was entitled “Responding to Natural Disasters as a Global Community.” Appearing as part of a panel of speakers, I was asked to show an excerpt from the film, talk about my experience in Sri Lanka, and motivate students to come up with innovative solutions to using technology.
I had never given a presentation before and the thought of being on the stage at the Emirates Palace with world-class speakers was a nightmare for me – jumping out of a plane was a pleasant daydream in comparison. However, I was very lucky to have supportive friends at ADMC who contributed ideas,encouragement and practical help, and even a website. I immediately emailed my contacts in Sri Lanka to get the latest update on how life was now. Although Chaini was now in a permanent house, her village had been relocated inland and twenty-two fisherman of Walahanduwa had to walk eight kilometers to their boats every morning. When I asked what was most needed in the village, Chaini replied that some bikes would make an enormous difference to their lives.
On the morning of the presentation I got wonderful help from ADWC and ADMC students who were helping at EWB. Souad Al Housani and Hamed Al Zaabi were especially enthusiastic and helpful. Abdallah Bastaki, one of the students who filmed the Facing the Inevitable documentary, gave an excellent introductory speech.
In my presentation I talked about the power of the individual to change the world through technology and called upon the students to come up with innovative solutions to help make the world a better place for these tsunami survivors. My vision was that the students at Education Without Borders students could make a difference.
To cut a long story short, ADW and ADM students and teachers came up with a solution. Not such an innovative solution – but one that is tried and true – money! Unsolicited, they responded with funds as a direct outcome of needs I had outlined in my presentation: transport and infrastructure. While this was marvelous, it was unexpected, and I hadn’t thought about the logistics and sensitivities of dealing with cash in the HCT system. A frantic scramble ensued to decide what to do with the windfall in the most transparent and accountable manner possible.
Fortunately, technology came to the rescue. An internet search, an early morning phone call to Guernsey, and a sleepy Sarah Griffith emerged as our best hope.
Sarah leads the UK-based “Bridge 2 Sri Lanka” charity, which focuses on highly targeted small- scale projects with full accountability. Despite being woken up at 5 am, she assured us that there would be no difficulty. The funds were channeled through bridge2srilanka and just four weeks later, not only were the twenty-two bikes delivered to Walahanduwa, but there was enough money left over for a wheel chair and three sewing machines. With the support of ADMC’s management the commitment and compassion of ADW and ADM students and staff had been realized
It was wonderful to hear Chaini’s reaction when we phoned to tell her that her village would be getting the bikes. She was so happy and kept saying “Please thank the students. This is fantastic for us!”
Is this the end of the story? I hope not. I feel that Chaini would make a great teacher, social worker or liaison officer with an Aid Organisation. She has been an inspiration and role model under difficult circumstances and her experience, although dreadful, can only enhance her understanding.
Chaini is twenty-three now, she speaks English well and enjoys emailing from a local Internet Café and she would love to go to college. I have learnt much from my experience of presenting at EWB, but most of all I have learnt about the power of the individual allied with technology to improve lives.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if Chaini was somehow supported in her dream?