Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Tsunami-hit Orphanage Rebuilt

by Sanjoy Majumder, BBC, December 19, 2005

Inside a yellow building smelling of fresh paint and with bright red floors a number of girls go through dance steps under the watchful gaze of their choreographer.

They clap hands in time to the tinny music being played on a cassette recorder that has seen better days, one eye anxiously on their instructor.

Dance lessons Senthalir Ilam 2005"Again, again," she cajoles, "we only have a few days to go."

The girls are practising for celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the Senthalir Ilam (Tender Sprouts) orphanage in Mullaitivu, in Tamil Tiger-controlled north-east Sri Lanka.

The day is doubly significant - it is when their brand new premises will also be officially opened.

Three-quarters of the 132 children belonging to the orphanage drowned when the tsunami struck last December.

The waves lashed the school, perched on the Mullaitivu coast. Not a single child under six survived.

Orphaned by the long-running civil war, the survivors were traumatised all over again.

Brand new school

But nearly nine months after I visited the school's temporary shelter, life has slowly begun picking up.

Just off the highway, Tender Sprouts has a new home.

Three buildings housing the dormitories have already been built, and the Norwegian government has pledged money to build schoolrooms, a kitchen and additional facilities.

The new school building Senthalir Ilam 2005With the monsoons having hit particularly hard this year, the children are glad they are better protected.

"Earlier, when we were living in a tent, the roof would often leak when it rained," says 14-year-old Niranjana.

"But it would be nice to get a space where we can study in peace, and perhaps a playground," she adds shyly.

It is here that the children stay, eat, pray and play.

Everyday, they go to the neighbouring school for their lessons.

Growing numbers

In the evening the school holds special classes in music and dance, drawing and even karate.

"When we moved out of Mullaitivu after the tsunami, there were only 31 children left," says Sudarshini, who runs the school on behalf of the Centre for Women's Development and Rehabilitation.

"Now there are 115."

The additional numbers are made up by children who were orphaned by the war and the tsunami in other parts of the conflict zone but have no place to go. But Tender Sprouts also functions as a boarding school for the children of single parents who are unable to take care of them.

"There are so many children whose parents are simply unable to cope after having lost their spouse in the tsunami," says Sudarshini.

"Many of them are so badly scarred psychologically that we are in a better position to take care of their children."

Thulasi's mother was pregnant with her when the tsunami struck, taking away her sister and father.

Now nine months old, she lives in the school because her mother was badly traumatised with her loss and has since been receiving counselling.

Twelve-year-old Krishantini also came to the orphanage after losing her father and two siblings to the tsunami.

She loves music and sings in a beautiful, clear voice.

It's a song from a popular Tamil movie.

"I miss my mother's heart and her love," translates Sudarshini.

Learning to cope

In the initial months after the tsunami, the children were encouraged to demonstrate their thoughts and fears creatively, through drawing, singing and acting.

The school authorities say over the months they have noticed a slow but perceptible change.

Niranjana, a quiet, serious-looking girl with dark eyes, began drawing while undergoing counselling after the tsunami.

In the initial months, she used to draw waves and an angry sea.

Now she has graduated to tamer landscapes - the countryside and even sunset on a calm, blue sea.

When I met 15-year-old Shanthi nine months ago, she was haunted by dreams of her younger sister who drowned in the tsunami.

Shanthi at Senathalir Ilam 2005"I still remember my sister but I no longer wake up at night," she says.

She enjoys sport and loves playing football and learning karate.

"I used to compete at sporting events," she says.

"Now I have begun training again. The district sports meet is only a couple of months away," she says as her face breaks into a smile.