In a small community in the suburbs of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim families were busy preparing to perform house warming rituals in their newly constructed permanent houses.
Five years after the tsunami that killed thousands, washed away homes and belongings, damaged infrastructure and tore apart communities, 25 tsunami-affected families moved into permanent houses.
The permanent housing project, funded partly by the Governments of Sri Lanka and Netherlands, provided safe housing with improved living conditions to some 70 tsunami-affected IDP families living in transitional shelters and willing to relocate to the suburbs. The permanent houses included a living room and a verandah, two bedrooms, a kitchen, a permanent toilet, access to a water source where necessary, internal wiring for electricity and infrastructural improvements including road, drainage systems and land.
Ensina*, from Modera in the suburbs of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, saw a wall of water approaching - and like millions across Asia that morning, she ran for her life. While tens of thousands of others were not as lucky, Ensina survived the tsunami. Later she and her neighbours found refuge in a nearby church, and moved to a tsunami camp and then to transitional shelters - staying two and a half years in each -.
It is while staying in the tsunami camp that Ensina, tsunami survivor turned community leader, mobilized her fellow camp residents to advocate strongly for permanent housing. And she is proud of her achievements thus far. “These beautiful houses were the outcome and I am proud of it”, she says pointing to the line of houses with brightly coloured walls, tiled roofs and cement floors in Wattala, in the suburbs of Colombo.
The group lead by Ensina met and discussed with relevant authorities, obtained the government grant to purchase the land and found a suitable block of land to build the transitional shelters. The transitional shelters were constructed by IOM under an earlier project.
“The biggest problem we had was having a house that did not get wet when it rained, was not too warm when it was hot or protected us from being harmed by animals”, says Kamal* a father of four children. Soon after the tsunami, with his home just a few meters away from the beach, there was no hope of having a house to return to and with it also went household and livelihood items - all that he had to rely on for his survival and income.
He says the move has been a big relief but it has also meant extra travel to get to work, finding new schools for the children and getting used to a new environment. “But we no longer have to move from place to place. Now that we have a permanent house to call home I am even working extra hours to ear more and buy new furniture and other household items”, he beams.
Prior to the project, IOM explained about the project to the community and got their fullest support. The land was then assessed for its suitability to construct permanent houses based on factors such as legal ownership and environmental conditions.
The project also engaged the skilled and unskilled labour of future house owners’ and paid them for their work at each stage of construction. This also gave the community members an opportunity to work together.
Saraswathi* and Ranjini* are married with children. Their husbands do not have regular work and are daily paid labourers just like the majority in the community. “A house like this was a dream”, they say in unison. “We find it difficult to survive on what our husbands earn and we have no savings. We would have had to remain in the temporary structure forever if not for the support of the governments of Sri Lanka, Netherlands and IOM “, they add.
These permanent houses have helped this community to recover but they still have problems to be resolved and needs to be met. “Gradually, our lives are getting back to normality. The house has brought us hope but above all given us the courage to move on to fulfill other needs”, Ensina concludes, thanking the international community, the government and international partners for working side by side with the communities to rebuild their lives and futures.
* Names have been changed