Sri Lanka was one of the several countries devastated by the South-Asian Tsunami in 2004. In the disaster aftermath, the Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan launched a humanitarian aid mission and dispatched teams of volunteers to Sri Lanka to provide disaster relief. In 2006, Tzu Chi established a liaison office in Hambantota, and set up another office in Colombo in 2011. For the past 15 years, Tzu Chi volunteers have been regularly travelling to Sri Lanka to guide the local volunteers to help the needy.
This year, Tzu Chi Sri Lanka worked with Tzu Chi volunteers from Singapore and Taiwan to launch two large-scale charity distributions in Hambantota and Colombo, respectively. On 15th March 2019, the day before the distribution event, volunteers arrived one team after another, to make preparations for the event. They did site survey, cleaned up the venues, planned for manpower, etc., and even conducted a test run to ensure smooth flow of the activities.
Aid beneficiaries receive shopping vouchers
In Sri Lanka, households with an average income of 3,000 rupees (est. S$23) or below will receive social assistance between 250 and 1000 rupees (depending on the size of the family). As the government aid is very limited, many needy households are in need of more assistance.
Currently, the two Tzu Chi offices in Sri Lanka are helping 50 to 60 needy families by providing them with daily necessities, such as rice, flour, cooking oil and lentils. In order to benefit more impoverished locals, Tzu Chi specially conducted these two large-scale aid distributions for non-regular Tzu Chi aid recipients.
In the previous charity distributions, rice and clothing were distributed. This time, Tzu Chi decided to work with a local supermarket and distributed shopping vouchers to the aid recipients instead. Such an arrangement not only saved on manpower and transportation costs, but also allowed the aid recipients to directly purchase the items they needed from the supermarket.
Lim Chwee Lian, a veteran volunteer from Singapore who oversees Tzu Chi’s Missions in Sri Lanka said that in order to ensure that the shopping vouchers were truly used to purchase necessities, Tzu Chi had specially indicated on the vouchers that they could not be used to buy alcohol and tobacco products.
“Although what we have given them is limited, we want to let them feel the love and warmth from people in society, and know that there are people who care about them. We hope to translate the kindness of Tzu Chi people around the world and Master Cheng Yen’s compassion into actions that benefit those in need,” said Lim.
At 7 o’clock in the morning on 16th March, long queues of aid recipients could be seen waiting at the entrance of the Tzu Chi National School in Hambantota. Some were already there before dawn broke. When Tzu Chi volunteers arrived at the site, they were warmly welcomed by the folks, who happily waved at them with warm greetings of “Ayubowan”.
"Ayubowan" is a Sinhalese word which means wishing one “longevity” and is used as a daily greeting. Cheerful greetings came from the crowd while smiles were seen on the faces of the folks, who were holding their aid notices (issued by Tzu Chi) and ID cards in their hands.
A number of volunteers took on the task of verifying the identity of every aid recipient based on the documents they provided, before allowing them to enter the distribution site. Among the large crowd of people were elderly folks or those with mobility issues, who needed assistance with going up the long flight of stairs leading to the venue. Some volunteers were readily on standby to provide support to these residents.
As the crowd grew larger and the waiting time increased, many of the local folks began to feel restless. Stationed at the front line, Tan Paik Hui, a Tzu Chi volunteer from Singapore, was one of those in charge of verifying the identity of the aid recipients. She remained calm and composed as she tried to appease the crowd. Tan, who had served at a Tzu Chi medical aid mission in Sri Lanka a few years ago, shared that with her previous experience, she was more confident in handling a crowd now.
Timely aid ahead of festive season
The second aid distribution was held at Sir John Kotelawala Primary School in Colombo. Amid the hot and humid weather with temperatures over 30 degree Celsius, volunteers promptly provided cool drinking water to the aid recipients to quench their thirst.
Many of the aid recipients broke into happy smiles after receiving the shopping vouchers. Words could not describe the deep gratitude they felt, and many of them gave the volunteers a hug in a show of love and appreciation.
“Today, I see many happy faces and I feel so happy to join this activity,” shared Ireka, a local Tzu Chi volunteer who joined Tzu Chi since 2006. Seeing the joy on the faces of the aid recipients, she felt really happy to be able to serve those in need.
Sineth Wijesekara, another Tzu Chi volunteer in Sri Lanka said, "The Sinhalese New Year falls in next month. I hope they can use their vouchers to purchase what they need to celebrate the festive occasion with their family members."
The Sinhalese New Year is an important traditional festival in Sri Lanka, which is generally celebrated on the 13th or 14th of April. The distribution of shopping vouchers was timely, allowing the cash-strapped locals to have some money to purchase festive food to celebrate their New Year.
Many of the aid recipients in Colombo went to the supermarket to make purchases on the same day, soon after receiving the shopping vouchers. Some of them were having their first experience shopping at a supermarket, and were thus clueless as to how to use the vouchers. So they approached the supermarket staff for help. Since no change would be given for purchases made with the shopping vouchers, the cashiers told the aid beneficiaries to select more items to match their vouchers’ value and provided assistance when needed.
A total of 4,737 needy households benefitted from the aid distributions in Sri Lanka. Arosha, the Sri Lankan Tzu Chi volunteer who was the overall-in-charge of the event for the first time, was very happy to be given the opportunity to undertake such a major mission.
"There are many poor people living in this country. Master Cheng Yen has given us the blessing and opportunity to hold this event. Hence, no matter how hard the work is, we will definitely complete the meaningful activity," he said.