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As Caritas Sri Lanka prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary in December, one theme runs through the festivities and its work over the past few decades: empowerment.
Bringing an end to an ongoing civil war and rebuilding lives after the tsunami are just two of the challenges facing the people of Sri Lanka. They are also areas in which Caritas Sri Lanka are hard at work.
“We’ve built almost over 8,900 houses under our Tsunami Project,” says Fr Damien Fernando, Caritas Sri Lanka National Director.
Keys to new houses were handed over as part of the ongoing 40th anniversary celebrations earlier this year. Caritas Sri Lanka aims to build 10,500 by March 2009.
He says some people in the north of the island have had a tough time and desperately need homes as first they were displaced by war, then they had to move again when the tsunami hit, and then war uprooted them a third time.
Caritas also provides relief items to those who have fled the war. The fact that Caritas is a homegrown organisation means that it has been allowed to provide aid in risky areas even when other agencies were asked to leave by the government.
Houses and relief provide the basics to set people on the path to a more stable life, but peace is essential if people are to fulfill their potential.
“We have a peace-building programme and we want to improve interfaith dialogue,” says Fr Fernando. “Even during the tsunami, we didn’t just help the Catholics. We worked with Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims too.”
Fr Fernando says that it is only through dialogue that things can change in Sri Lanka and a just society be established.
Even though Catholics are a minority in Sri Lankan society, where many people are Buddhists, as well as Muslims and Hindus, the Church is very active in promoting co-existence and dialogue. Fr Fernando says that religious leaders come together at least once a month to search for a solution to the conflict.
In the meantime, Caritas Sri Lanka has been encouraging people to develop their skills and livelihoods by organising a trade fair for its anniversary.
Caritas brought together local people, small businesses and people from a Caritas livelihood programme and encouraged them to produce items such as jewellery, painting and pots and sell them.
It gave an opportunity to make money, learn new skills and allowed the livelihood participants to explain how Caritas had help them change their lives.
Father Fernando seems happy will the results. Now he’s planning how Caritas can help Sri Lankans lay the groundwork to improve their lives over the next 40 years.
“We’d like to create a society where people live in peace and harmony with their dignity,” he says.