Helping Hands: Inter-religious Cooperation Hallmark of Tsunami Response
By David Snyder
17-year-old Aysha Cader is one of the more than 1,300 students at the Zahira Muslim College in Galle, Sri Lanka. Caritas Sri Lanka built a new classroom building at the school after the tsunami destroyed several buildings on campus. Such efforts are part of a broad inter religious effort in Galle and elsewhere in Sri Lanka.
The tear-drop shape of her face made more pronounced by the head covering of her school uniform, Aysha Cader thought back to the day the tsunami struck her village.
“I was working in our garden. We heard a big shout,” Cader said. “When we saw the water, we ran for a hill.”
Barely into her teens when the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in 2004, Cader today is a 17-year-old student at the Zahira Muslim School in Galle, a place of both ongoing education and old memories for many of the more than 1,300 Muslim students who share this campus, which was turned into a camp for those displaced by the tsunami. As with all in this community, the tsunami touched the school body personally. In all, more than 100 students and teachers lost their lives, and two of the school’s ten buildings were destroyed by the water.
“After the tsunami I came to the camp (on the grounds of the school), and I felt very sad,” said Cader, who has attended the school since primary school. “I was wondering how it would ever be what it used to be.”
Within weeks classes resumed at the school, but it was hard, Cader said. Students and teachers were traumatized by the losses they had suffered, and the classrooms were cramped and crowded because of the loss of classroom space.
“It was very difficult to study after the tsunami because we were crowded,” Cader said. “Before the tsunami we had 40 students in a class. Then after we had 60.”
As relief efforts in Sri Lanka shifted from emergency operations to recovery and rehabilitation in the months after the disaster, Caritas Sri Lanka learned of the problems Cader and her fellow students were facing. Meeting with school officials, Caritas offered to build a new building of classrooms on the campus to help ease the crowding. In August 2007, construction began on a two-story building, complete with electricity and overhead fans for each of the six classrooms within – something no other buildings on the campus have. By February 2008, the new building was finished, and a ceremony was held at the school to mark the occasion.
“It’s not completely back to normal,” said F.I. Kathim, who has taught English at the Zahira School for 12 years. “But we are little by little progressing.”
For Caritas Sri Lanka, the project was part of a massive effort to rebuild homes and infrastructure in the aftermath of the tsunami. In addition to the more than 7,500 homes Caritas has repaired and built since 2005, the agency has worked to build clinics, meeting halls, and schools in affected communities.
But helping to heal the physical scars of the disaster is only one part of the work Caritas is doing in Sri Lanka. In a nation of mixed religions, where Hindus and Christians, Muslims and Buddhists often share the same communities, Caritas efforts in Sri Lanka had been crossing religious lines long before the tsunami struck. Perhaps nowhere is that more clearly illustrated than in the form of the Inter-religious Peace Commitment Foundation, a group of leaders from each of the country’s major religions, who have met regularly for more than 25 years to share their combined perspective. The group’s president, Ven. Kegalle Pangharawa, a Buddhist monk, says the group arose from inter-religious conflicts that erupted in Galle in 1982.
“We didn’t have any plan to have an organization like this. It came naturally,” Pangharawa said. “There was a conflict between the people, and I was frustrated by what I saw. So I tried to tell the people to be peaceful. I thought if the religious leaders were living in harmony, the people should live in harmony.”
Arising from that cooperation was the Inter-religious Peace Commitment Foundation – a group comprised of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic clerics. Together, the group makes regular public appearances at anniversaries, occasions and events, and has been called upon by the government to serve as the highly visible face of inter-religious harmony in Sri Lanka. In addition, group members take part in a range of national and international peace-building forums. Their message, says Ven. Ridiyagama Visuddhi, also a Buddhist monk, is simple.
“There is no such thing as Christian blood, no such thing as Buddhist blood, no such thing as Muslim blood,” Visuddhi said. “We are different by religion, but as humans we are all the same.”
In the years since forming officially, the group members attend each other’s festivals and holidays, and educate students from all religions in the various religious schools throughout the city. When the tsunami struck, said Ven Pangharawa, that close sense of community and mutual understanding allowed the group to pool their energy and resources seamlessly.
“At the time of the tsunami we got together and without any discrimination we helped the tsunami-affected people,” Ven Pangharawa said. “We worked with great togetherness after the tsunami.”
Back at the Zahir Muslim School, Aysha Cader knows first hand what shape such inter-religious cooperation can take. Thinking back to the days after the tsunami, when she wondered how the school would ever be rebuilt, Cader says the students of Zahir have taken the lessons of Galle’s religious leaders to heart when they attend class in their new school building.
“People are very happy,” Cader said. “Because Caritas did not see religion – they just helped.”
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