Tsunami families' message of thanks

EVENING Star readers took the plight of 600 tsunami victims to their hearts, raising money to help victims of the Boxing Day tragedy. The £4,000 you donated bought 13 fishing boats, 20 smaller canoes and five houses for people in the Negombo refugee camp in Sri Lanka.

By Tracey Sparling

EVENING Star readers took the plight of 600 tsunami victims to their hearts, raising money to help victims of the Boxing Day tragedy. The £4,000 you donated bought 13 fishing boats, 20 smaller canoes and five houses for people in the Negombo refugee camp in Sri Lanka. Two and a half years on, five houses have been built with your donations.

ON a multicoloured climbing frame, a little girl plays happily.

You can see she is bursting with life and energy, as she soon reaches the top with great skill.

The smile on her face is a clue to the secure and healthy world she is growing up in.

Yet two years ago little she was in a very precarious condition. With failing health and no sign of help, her future was a long way from certain. This laughing little girl is Rebecah - and it was the image of Rebecah's face that sparked a humanitarian effort for the tsunami refugees by readers of the Evening Star two and a half years ago.

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Dangerously hungry and sick, the little girl's appearance was not only intolerable but also repairable. It was the horror in her eyes and chicken pox scars on her face that brought desperately needed assistance to the refugees at Negombo.

So how is little Rebecah now? The wonderful news is that Rebecah, now six, is happy, healthy and very much alive. She lives in a new block of flats, around half a mile from the beach which were built by a charity organisation. The children's playground she loves, is in the centre of the complex.

She will always remember Boxing Day in 2004, when a tsunami swamped the Indian Ocean and left the world watching in horror.

At Negombo in Sri Lanka, everybody escaped alive, although 600 people lost their homes. But because the area was not hit as badly as other parts of the idyllic island of Sri Lanka, in Negombo the survivors found themselves forgotten. Alone and hungry, the refugees' plight seemed ridiculous as £3bn had been raised in the west - but the aid was being sent elsewhere.

They were found by journalist Steve Gravenor and photographer Nicky Lewin, who brought the story of their plight back to the UK.

After a fleet of fishing boats was bought, five houses were also commissioned from the funds.

Before the giant wave struck, the families all lived in homes on the beach, as had their ancestors for hundreds of years before them. Now four families live in the Evening Star-funded homes, which are part of a 40-house complex known simply as “Tsunami Houses”.

It is hoped that the new tsunami houses will preserve their cultural way of life, as fishing folk, for hundreds of years to come.

Nicky said: “Homeless families and orphans who have not been fortunate enough to receive the same sort of help, still sleep rough on the side of the street. An open drain gully passes next to the concrete pavement where these unfortunate people sleep. Theirs is a world where they must carry their few possessions with them, wrapped in cotton shawls. It's a world where the road back to normal life is a tough and windy one, a road that many never manage to negotiate.

“They receive no trouble from the locals and the odd tourist who meets them will often buy them a meal. But they fear the night visits by police officers who seem to find their presence offensive. Many find very poorly paid work in the local fish market, such as 15-year-old Riana who we met, who has no mother or father and lives rough with her sister. With no education, there is little chance that her world will change.”

But in every grim situation, there is always a ray of light. Nicky's eye was drawn to 13-year-old Nireysahini (pronounced Nuroshini) wearing her bright white school uniform, preparing herself for school.

He said: “The fact that her uniform was presentable, is a triumph in itself. The fact that she is making so much effort under such conditions is inspiring. Nireysahini is orphaned but lives with her brother Seledurn 23. She is determined to complete her education but finding the fees, although minimal, is tough.”

Many of the fishing families Evenign Star donations helped, have the surname Fernando, a through back to the days of when the Portuguese traded from Sri Lanka.

Five lucky families received a house, which turned their lives around.

Reassured and happy, Mahashi Croos serves refreshing ginger tea in the humid morning heat, as she tells how her family's nightmare is now over.

Her new home was built a good quarter mile from the sea, and reinforced to withstand the rigours of nature such as tsunamis.

Mahashi, 41, her husband Sebastian, 42, and their children Rasika,16, Chanaka,18, and Shermila, 20, today give a special thanks to their Evening Star benefactors.

Their house has a small living room, kitchen and two bedrooms.

Their relatives helped the hired tradesmen to build the five houses.

Madushani Fernando is six months pregnant, and like many people who live in the countries of the Indian Ocean, she really knows how to smile.

The 19-year-old, her dad Anthony, 52, mum Mngalika 48, and their seven-month-old child Shelvin, ooze contentment as they serve cold drinks in their meticulously kept home.

Madushani said: “When we lost our home, boat and processions in the tsunami we moved to the refugee camp. But nobody came. We heard that the world was going to help us but they didn't come? Then the two English journalists came with Father Clement (the parish priest) and things began to change.

“First we were fed and given a proper tent. Then we were told we were to be given a plot of land and we were to assist the tradesmen to build our new home. This felt like a gift from heaven. We pray for the people who made this possible.

“We had one year in the camp but now our life is perfect. Thank you to our brothers and sisters of Ipswich.”

Damayantha Fernando Wuhshaly, 25, and her two-year-old daughter Dilipproudly pose for the camera outside their immaculately clean home.

The joy on her face is a far cry from when Nicky first met her in the refugee camp in January 2005. She was seven months pregnant then, and very lucky to survive, as her home and belongings were washed away in the terrible “Harbour Wave”.

For Joseph Fernando, 36, his wife Ivon-Sereka 32, and children Amila, 12, and Amith, seven, fishing is what they do and they know nothing else.

However an added bonus to the rehoused families, is that they can now grow vegetables in their small gardens.

The Fernandos are devout Christians and the house is decorated with colourful religious pictures and prophecies. Ivon-Sereka cooks mainly in the garden as they have yet to be able to afford a cooker for the kitchen.

Jude Fernando, aged 36, his wife Mekckencia 33, and children Ivon 17, Roshen 15, Rashan 12, and Nadeethani 9, are another family that benefited from the Evening Star readers donations.

Their house is located at the edge of the small estate and right next to the canal.

This is extremely convenient as they can park the family fishing boat next to the house after the day's catch.

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