Sunday, January 10, 2016

At a troubled orphanage south of Batticaloa

Janet was chatting with the front desk person at our guesthouse yesterday when she was confronted with a problem. "We need 140 notebooks and pencils for our children or they can't go to school." The plaint ruffled Janet and I suggested later in the afternoon when our host sat down with us that she ask him what he knew about the situation. "Would you like to visit the orphanage?" he asked. Ten minutes later we were in his car heading south. 

The New Kalmunai road is busy thoroughfare, a checkerboard of retail businesses and ethnic enclaves. The most conspicuous spot on the journey is Kattankudy, presumably the most densely populated village on earth, a Muslim enclave heavily supported by funds from Saudi Arabia and other regimes of the middle east. Spatial politics are as pronounced here as in Israel and the west bank, where "facts on the ground," religious and geographic hegemony are in a painful, constant state of challenge. It's not a pretty place. 

This part of Sri Lanka was devastated by 30 years of warfare and the overwhelming catastrophe of the 2004 tsunami. Part of the checkerboard are plots of land where internal refugees were resettled, orphanages and schools established, and destroyed villages demolished. If you pay much attention to your surroundings it's an uncomfortable scenario where you get the feeling at least some people are living on the edge. Last evening we had a chance to step way out of our comfort zone and see it up close. 

Mr. Thavarajah drew his car up to the iron gate of the orphanage, just a couple of kilometers south of Kattankudy. We had just had an unfortunate incident on the road where he was pulled over, supposedly for overtaking a scooter too close to the verge. I didn't see his driving error, and I suspect he was being targeted randomly. The officer who pulled us over spoke to him in Sinhala, what seems to me an insult in this predominantly Tamil speaking region. Anyway, I know enough Sinhala to have recognized when the officer, busily filling out his report form, and without looking up, asked my friend if he like to "give a little something." I thought by telling him in English that we were visitors from America it would temper his greed, as I witnessed earlier this year in another part of Sri Lanka. It didn't work. My friend took it quietly but knowing him as I do I suspect he was boiling inside. 

A short walk down the sandy driveway to the main house, the sister in charge, in a slightly dirty orange habit, greeted Mr. Thavurajah and then us, and in his quiet way he spoke a few words to her in Tamil. We were shown into main part of compound across a sand-covered yard. Girls started pouring out of the main building, about 25 total, carrying plastic chairs that they set up for the five of us (the sister, Thavarajah, Janet, Julia, and me) and girls arranged themselves in a loose semi circle in front of us sitting on the ground. 

The girls were so eager to drink us in, so full of life and curiosity, and with so much energy aimed at us strange outsiders. I am always strangely uncomfortable in these situations where nothing may be expected of me but the looks on peoples faces are so expectant. The girls begged us to tell them our names and I wrote upside down in large letters in the sand, "SAM." Their glee seemed so great, and their enthusiasm so palpable in contrast to slow motion disaster that the sister described to our host. 

From what I could understand, this was a charitable order that was started in the early 70s by a Roman Catholic father in Trincomalee. I wasn't sure when or why they moved south to Batticaloa but it may have been in response to the dire situation here. He received funds for setting up the complex here, including the sturdy building that was later erected and in which the girls live. He planted cashew trees on the property, which could bring the orphanage some revenue today, were it not for neighbors, internally displaced people who have been resettled here, who steal the fruit. 

About 10 years ago he was saving a girl from drowning in the ocean when he himself drowned. It seems that from then on a steady decline in fortunes set in. The sister described a Dutch charity that has recently cut a large part of its funding to the orphanage. There is essentially no money from the local diocese, which responds to emergencies but does not have an ongoing source of reliable revenue. One girl, the one who we saw later had notebooks (none of the others did) is sponsored by Canadian family. Recently each girl was bought a dress by an ex-pat who was passing through. They share one large room where their clothing is stored and several tightly packed dormitory style bedrooms. A new kitchen started years ago is still half built. 

A few pigs and goats bring in limited revenue but there is no long term financial stream to assure the operation. Not all of the girls are orphans. Some are abandoned and others neglected by their families. There is mental illness in these communities where people suffered long and deeply. Government social workers bring needy girls to the orphanage but funding always comes late. It falls on the sister and her small group of women helpers to keep the girls, most of whom are in sixth grade or older, fed and cared for. 

The girls are schooled at a government school where they take about 10 classes, which they enumerated for us. They also attend tuition classes at night, a practice that has evolved because (what I hear universally) teachers don't teach in the government schools and they get paid privately to teach the "tuition" classes). Without tuition classes the girls can't compete academically, I'm told. Each class requires a notebook. I'm not totally clear on this, and I need to discuss it with my host today, but these may be notebooks and pencils we need to buy them, at least for short term. 

But short term solutions carry a huge challenge. The girls have to take all ten notebooks to school. It follows that they require backpacks. How to sustain the charitable activity that's needed here? How to provide a safe and stable environment where the girls can grow and become productive adults? How to connect this endeavor with resources, either from the community here or from outside, which will continue to provide support? How to involve a beleaguered community in protecting and providing for its most vulnerable children?

Always an outsider looking in, it seems daunting to try to address these questions. Easy to throw some amount of money at the problem. Less easy to sing for the girls (which they insisted I do) or to have them eagerly grabbing you by the wrist as they show you through their depressing place. Hardest to know what to do  and how to do the right thing. 

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