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From the Edge of the Sea: Finding New Hope in Sri Lanka
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Winnie Romeril
 
March 23, 2007

As the dance recital begins, a warm breeze blows through the open windows bringing the smell of the ocean – a mere 200 yards away – inside. Two years ago, the tsunami brought the ocean into the village, sweeping away families and homes from Dondra, the southernmost point of Sri Lanka. Within the country, more than 35,000 people died or went missing and nearly half a million were displaced by the December 2004 disaster.

Sri Lankan girls dancing in handmade costumes made from supplies provided by the American Red Cross.
Sri Lankan girls dancing in handmade costumes made from supplies provided by the American Red Cross.
Credit: Winnie Romeril/American Red Cross

R. Bramitha Kumara, one of the local dance instructors, performs a traditional Sri Lankan dance.
R. Bramitha Kumara, one of the local dance instructors, performs a traditional Sri Lankan dance.
Credit: Winnie Romeril/American Red Cross

Dancers perform traditional Sri Lankan candle lighting ceremony to welcome guests.
Dancers perform traditional Sri Lankan candle lighting ceremony to welcome guests.
Credit: Winnie Romeril/American Red Cross

Today, the sadness and shock from the tsunami that engulfed the residents of Dondra have been replaced by the lively buzz of anticipation. About 50 families eagerly await the next performance by some 30 dancers ranging from five to sixteen years old.

"The Red Cross has brought hope back to our community," said R. S. Shanthi, the mother of one of the brightly dressed, twirling dancers. "After all we have lost, just look at how happy they are."

A mix of people now call Dondra home. Ten families relocated to the village after being displaced by the tsunami, while 25 households have been rebuilt. The remaining houses survived because they were built on a hill. Although half the village was rebuilt, the new neighbors were strangers to one another.

With encouragement from the American Red Cross and the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society's psychosocial support program (PSP) teams, these villagers are finding ways to bring their new community closer. PSP is designed to help people – especially children –overcome the emotional trauma they experienced in a disaster. Similar activities are helping 60 other tsunami-affected communities in Sri Lanka, expected to reach more than 350,000 people across the country.

"Our first challenge was to find a common ground," explained Anjana Dayal, a PSP delegate for the American Red Cross in Sri Lanka. "When there is so much diversity, you need to find something that has value to everyone; without this, it can be very insular." Dayal added, "The Red Cross is helping to open up the lines of communication."

Together with the American Red Cross PSP team, the villagers decided to rebuild their lives and rekindle their community spirit by drawing on their common cultural heritage. Community members, who have skills to share, offer classes in traditional dance and making crafts. Residents with formal dance training – usually the older youth – help the younger ones keep traditions alive through performance arts.

"I love teaching children, because I see their self-confidence growing each day," said R. Bramitha Kumara, one of the local trainers. "The chance to perform and hear the applause helps motivate our children to continue this tradition. What the Red Cross is doing for us is truly beautiful."

Christie Getman, Program Coordinator for the American Red Cross in Sri Lanka, acknowledges that the journey has been tough for this community, but progress is being made. "PSP activities like the one here in Dondra are more than just kids dancing," she explained. "You can gauge the resilience of the people by their sense of community spirit. "This community, so battered by the tsunami, is now well on its way to recovery."

For the villagers of Dondra, these activities not only keep their tradition alive but also help them develop a bond. "We feel united now – in a way we never felt before the tsunami," said Shanthi, while others nod in agreement.

The people in the audience mill about, watching the children as they practice moving in sync, while others clap out a beat. The recital is over, but still they dance. Hope is palpable in their faces and in the spirit of this community – rebuilding and reinventing itself, one child at a time.

As part of the world's largest humanitarian network, the American Red Cross alleviates the suffering of victims of war, disaster and other international crises, and works with other Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to improve chronic, life-threatening conditions in developing nations. We reconnect families separated by emergencies and educate the American public about international humanitarian law. This assistance is made possible through the generosity of the American public.




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