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Ten years of supporting education in Modarawila, Sri Lanka

Projects Abroad Care volunteer, Herman Chi Hong Chan, with children at his placement at Dutch Anne Preschool in Panadura.Many Projects Abroad Care volunteers in Sri Lanka will be familiar with the Dutch Anne Preschool in Panadura. Leading lessons alongside the school’s Sri Lankan staff, volunteers introduce English to the youngest residents of the Modarawila Housing Scheme, where the preschool is located.

Currently, Herman Chi Hong Chan, a Hong Kong native studying at the University of South Australia, is volunteering at Dutch Anne. Each morning, Herman leads lessons, games and educational play with the school’s young children, aged 4-6. Each afternoon, the preschool becomes a community centre, and children of all ages are invited to join the activities. Herman also helps the older children with homework.

“The language barrier may be the greatest challenge in doing such work,” said Herman, “but the obstacle has inspired me to learn elementary Sinhala. Practicing with my host family, as well as shop-owners and merchants around Panadura, I can now bridge the language gap with the students.”

Herman’s determination to learn the local language has made it easier to build closer relationships with his students and the local community.

But Herman’s hard work at Dutch Anne Preschool wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of two particular Projects Abroad volunteers. The story of Dutch Anne Preschool is one of friendship, service and a longstanding commitment made nearly ten years ago. Emerging from one of the darkest moments in Sri Lanka’s history, Dutch Anne is a testament to local development and progress.

In 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami ravaged the Sri Lankan coastline. More than 30,000 Sri Lankans were killed in the catastrophe, and up to 1.5 million people were displaced from their homes. Though Sri Lanka’s eastern and southern coasts were hit hardest, Panadura, on the western shore, was also devastated.

One of many national camps for tsunami refugees, the Modarawila Housing Scheme, was established in 2005 for families who had lost their homes. In the immediate aftermath of the natural disaster, and despite the ongoing Sri Lankan Civil War, Projects Abroad began working in Modarawila.

Projects Abroad Care volunteer, Herman Chi Hong Chan, plays games with children at his placement at Dutch Anne Preschool in Panadura.“At that time, what is now a series of concrete buildings was a tent city, a ‘tsunami camp’” recalled Projects Abroad Operations Manager Ligaya Basalo. “The displaced families living at Modarawila were at first hesitant to welcome foreigners into their makeshift living spaces, but a dedicated group of Projects Abroad Disaster Relief volunteers did their best to provide stability in education for the children of the area.”

When Projects Abroad began disaster relief work in Panadura, most of Modarawila’s children did not attend school. Families were burdened by the loss of their homes and possessions and the residents were in a dire situation. Focusing on primary education, Projects Abroad volunteers began to gather the children in makeshift spaces, leading lessons and providing safe spaces to learn and play. Through the efforts of many volunteers in those early years, Projects Abroad gained the trust of Modarawila’s residents.

At that same time, two young women from the Netherlands volunteered elsewhere in the region. Rosanne van Herksen was on a Teaching project in Panadura, while Suzanne Jongerius was at a Care project in Piliyandala. Both young women met during their time in Sri Lanka, became close friends and kept in touch once they returned to the Netherlands.

Moved by the many friendly faces they met and the devotion of Projects Abroad staff, Rosanne and Suzanne were keen to continue their efforts in rebuilding Sri Lanka. Collaborating with Projects Abroad, the young women collected donations from their communities in anticipation of a return to Sri Lanka.

As Rosanne recalled, “In the Netherlands, everyone we spoke to was touched by our stories of volunteering. With a lot of help from our family and friends, we realised that we could do something for the lovely people of Sri Lanka. Thus began the idea of a permanent preschool at Modarawila.”

As Projects Abroad entered its fourth year of working in Modarawila, volunteers enabled many of the housing scheme’s children to return to primary and secondary school. Nonetheless, Modarawila was still without a permanent preschool building, and volunteers gathered the area’s youngest children in crude structures.

Passionately fundraising nearly €4,000 for the construction of the school, Rosanne and Suzanne returned to Sri Lanka in January 2009 to lay the first stone of Dutch Anne Preschool. The school (named after Rosanne and Suzanne) opened on 2 April, 2009. One month later, the Sri Lankan Civil War came to an end.

Projects Abroad Care volunteer, Herman Chi Hong Chan, does arts and crafts with children at his placement at Dutch Anne Preschool in Panadura.Now in its sixth year, Dutch Anne has been a source of stability in the lives of Modarawila’s residents. As Ligaya shared, “though the housing scheme has seen many reincarnations since 2005, Dutch Anne was up and running before there was indoor plumbing in Modarawila. What Rosanne and Suzanne created was a tribute to the Projects Abroad volunteers who worked in Modarawila before them. What Herman can accomplish today is a tribute to the generosity of Rosanne and Suzanne.” 

As Herman reflected, “In some ways, I am very much like the preschool students at Dutch Anne. I came here after the tsunami, and have no memory of the devastation it bore. It is important for me to speak with the older students of Modarawila, and I meet many of them during the community hours in the afternoon. Some of them remember the tsunami, and as a student of social work, it is key that I understand their trauma and pain. Yet, I am only able to look forward, as a member of Modarawila’s new community, and see a brighter future for everyone.”

“When the tsunami camp was first constructed at Modarawila, its residents were beyond distressed,” concluded Ligaya, “but Projects Abroad arrived quickly, and made its presence known. Over the past ten years, Projects Abroad has provided volunteers to assist with Care and Teaching, and we have seen the trauma and heartbreak of the disaster fade away. Our volunteers used to give assistance in art therapy, and tend to the pain of young students, but now Modarawila’s preschoolers know nothing but the stability of a safe home and classroom.”

Projects Abroad continues to sponsor Dutch Anne Preschool so that it remains free for all residents of Modarawila.

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