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Changing the world, one village at a time

Does Squamish’s response to the Boxing Day tsunami signal a paradigm shift in global consciousness?

The devastation came in visual waves from our van window in the wee hours of dawn. We’d left our hotel in Columbo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, at 5 a.m. to get an early start on our eight-hour drive south along the west coast of Sri Lanka. As the road wound closer to the seaboard we began to see small areas that had been affected by the tsunami but not the immense devastation we’d been anticipating. A few hours later it was a different story.

"Stop the van. I want to get out." We’d arrived in Kahawe.

The name may not ring a bell but my relationship with a place I’d never visited before was eerie. I, like most people around the world, had become familiar with this area in the days following the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami. Fuelled by dramatic images on television and in newspapers, I had travelled here in my mind to gain some understanding of the devastation and loss that these people must suffer and endure. It’s here, just south of Kahawe, where more than 2,800 people died on a train bound for Galle.

What remains of the train stands lonely on the tracks at Kahawe. If you didn’t know its tormented history you might think it was a derelict train of bygone days simply left where it last rolled. In fact it was deposited here using cranes and heavy machinery after been pushed several hundred metres by the force of the wave. To get to the railway tracks and to this site, we walk past the obliterated village of Kahawe. Piles of rubble, mostly the brick remains of homes and businesses, interspersed with clothing, household goods and personal belongings, line a well-beaten trail to this impromptu monument.

There are teams of workers everywhere along the coast of Sri Lanka, all sponsored by one aid organization or another, methodically transferring scattered debris into manageable piles and erecting temporary shelters. The monsoons are coming in May and the need to clear debris to minimize mosquito-breeding habitat and thus the spread of Dengue fever and malaria is pressing. Across the tracks in a large field stand hundreds of tents, temporary shelter to thousands of homeless. The tsunami is now more than a month old but the daunting task of clean up and ultimately the rebuilding of homes, businesses and lives is still in its infancy and a pervasive part of daily life.

We stood there in early February in awe of this reality. Who would have thought a month earlier that four people from Squamish, B.C., Canada would be here, literally touching this enigmatic symbol of human suffering. For myself, Jeff Dawson, Peter Gordon and John DeSouza this trip would be a life-altering experience.

However, Kahawe was not our ultimate destination. We were heading to the small fishing village of Wanduruppa in the Hambantota District of Sri Lanka’s southeast coast. It is here in this village of 167 families that the Squamish Humanity Village Society has pledged its support in taking a long-term, holistic approach to rebuilding a sustainable community.

Our journey to Sri Lanka was a month in the making. The spontaneous and compassionate outpouring in Squamish as a result of the tsunami and immense human suffering was amazing to witness and an honour to participate in. From the first meeting called by businessman Peter Gordon and Councillor Jeff Dawson to determine community support for the concept of adopting a village, to our long drive along the devastated Sri Lankan coast, the journey has not only been an inspiring lesson in the power of humanity but also a discovery of community pride.

"We didn’t know if we would get 10 people or 100 people," says Dawson of that initial meeting on Jan. 3, 2005. "We had nearly 150 people sign up that night and commit to rebuilding a village somewhere in the tsunami-affected area."

From the onset, the citizens of Squamish saw the immense potential in this effort. It soon became evident that this was going to be a unique challenge unlike anything many of us had ever experienced. Our initiative seemed to strike a cord with media and communities across Canada. And with all this attention came a very profound reality and responsibility: unwittingly, Squamish had become a leader in this unique approach to humanitarian relief, a tangible model that puts communities in touch with communities, people in touch with people. It is an initiative that is made comparatively more profound because of the pervasive disjoint prevalent in today’s fast-food, television-obsessed, text-messaging, computer-dominated world.

As tremendous interest in the initiative grew and the concept evolved, it quickly became evident to organizers that the "adopt a village" moniker didn't fully encapsulate the profound goals and potential of the project; the truly revolutionary aspect of the idea was its ability to tear down long-held perceptions of first and third world interactions, to develop a "new language" with which to communicate an equal partnership, a sister city-like, long-term relationship with a village in another part of the world.

Humanity Village became much more than rebuilding houses. The bricks and mortar of this initiative are heart and soul, the personalization of the compassionate acts of humanitarian relief. It has the ability to create an educational experience for both partner communities, an enduring relationship of learning and building. It involves every aspect of the Squamish community: from children and youth to carpenters, teachers and medical professionals. It was this intangible potential and long-term commitment that resonated with government officials and community builders in Sri Lanka.

The Squamish community's dedication to this endeavour was never more apparent than on Saturday, Jan., 14 when – during the Waves of Compassion, Squamish Community with Heart fundraiser which featured local musicians, actors and youth choirs – more than $42,000 was raised in just six hours. And this from a community of only 17,000 whom, like most Canadians, had already been very generous in their monetary support for tsunami relief efforts. This amount would be equivalent to the Greater Vancouver area raising more than $6 million in six hours.

This total was given an additional $100,000 boost in early January when a small Vancouver real estate company, MAC Real Estate, saw the unique and far-reaching potential of the Squamish model and contributed a minimum of $100,000 to the initiative, $100 for every condominium they anticipate they will sell in 2005.

As fundraising picked up steam and the organization of Humanity Village gained momentum, communication was established through the Vancouver Sri Lankan Friendship Society with Linea Aqua, a manufacturing company outside Columbo, and The World Conservation Union (IUCN), a scientific-based NGO that has been working in the Hambantota District on ecological projects for three years. What soon evolved was a triad partnership between our grassroots community organization, a private-sector "fare trade" business and an internationally recognized NGO.

Our first few days in Columbo were devoted to further understanding and solidifying our partnerships with Linea Aqua and IUCN. What we discovered was a group of dedicated, like-minded, capable and professional individuals who share the same vision of developing a holistic, long-term approach to rebuilding Wanduruppa. This collective ideal of social, economic and environmental sustainability in Wanduruppa became even more apparent as we got to know each other during our two-week mission.

We also set about gathering information from as many sources as possible including the chair of MAS Holdings, Linea Aqua’s parent company. Mahesh Amalean is in charge of housing and environment for the Tsunami Task Force that was set up and appointed by the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and included two bureaucrats from each of their offices and eight prominent Sri Lankan business people. We had an informative discussion with a fellow by the name of Surin who, among many of his responsibilities, works for the World Bank and is spearheading a mangrove rehabilitation and economic diversification project along the west and south-east coast of Sri Lanka. We also met with Nimal Lokuge, the CEO of Sierra Construction, Sri Lanka’s largest construction company, to talk about construction needs and rebuilding challenges and opportunities.

After four days of Columbo meetings, we were all anxious to head south and meet the people of Wanduruppa.

We arrived in Wanduruppa Saturday, Feb. 12, 48 days after the tsunami. We were all excited to finally be there and spent much of the first day assessing the damage to the village dwellings, the environment and the boats, and talking to the villagers. In total, the tsunami completely destroyed 67 homes and partially damaged 84. Fifty fishing boats were also lost. Four children were orphaned and 16 kids were left with one parent.

We saw some of the reconstruction work Linea Aqua and IUCN had already undertaken to 10 partially damaged homes. Despite the apparent progress they had made in Wanduruppa, we were all surprised at how little rebuilding had occurred along the coast. Much of the delay in rebuilding was due to the Sri Lankan government’s challenge and hesitation in establishing a "no build zone". A 100-metre no-build zone from the high tide mark in the Hambantota region was determined while we were there, so rebuilding can – in theory – proceed.

There are also immense challenges ahead for governments as thousands of homes will have to be completely relocated, and in some instances, entire villages. Convincing people to leave their hometowns is but one hurdle. Governments must also find land on which to build them.

Later that afternoon we visited Hambantota City, the region’s commercial centre about 20 km from Wanduruppa. It was an experience none of us will soon forget. We can only imagine what it was like in Hambantota during the days and weeks following the tsunami, where an estimated 4,000+ people were killed in an instant. Locals insist that it could be as many as 10,000 dead in Hambantota, as it was host to a regional market where untold numbers of people from other areas gathered on that fateful Sunday morning to sell their wares. The city centre, the market and heart of the town’s economy and the pulse of the community, looks like a war zone; a half-kilometre square area between the city’s horseshoe-shaped port and a lagoon with the famous Hambantota salt flats is literally flattened. A tent city of the homeless has risen in its place. We met one man who said he lost 18 members of his family in the tsunami. Some cleanup has occurred but the massive task of rebuilding has not yet started.

On Sunday morning, we left the hotel at 5 a.m. in order to visit Yala National Park. This area was also hit by the tsunami and a large number of tourists and locals were simply swept out to sea. Mysteriously, as had been the case in all tsunami-affected areas, no dead animals were found. We saw elephants, sloth bears, mongoose, buffalo, crocodiles, spotted deer, wild boar, jackals, langur monkeys and a variety of bird life. This is an area popular with European tourists in particular but as you can imagine, tourism is at best anemic in Sri Lanka since the tsunami.

We had a mixed reception at first from the doctors at Ambalantota Hospital near Wanduruppa. They are sensitive to the problems overt charity has on the mindset of the people of Sri Lanka in general and tsunami victims specifically. They are also proud professionals who do not wish to be minimized in their efforts. Once they understood our motives and our sincere desire to help them with their leadership they were much more open.

The hospital is clean but rudimentary. There are two doctors on call 24/7 and seven nurses who are responsible for an area encompassing 17 villages and 60,000 people. The staff sees on average 200 out patients daily. There is also a dental clinic associated with this satellite hospital, two birthing rooms and a small dispensary, but no surgical facilities. The staff is assembling a list of supplies for us (i.e. fetal heart monitor, glocometre and strips etc.) that they don’t have but see as obligatory. There is no lab at the hospital; the doctors see it as a fundamental requirement that the government simply cannot afford to provide them.

We headed back to Wanduruppa and then took a boat ride from there through the Walawe Ganga estuary courtesy of IUCN and village fishermen. What a trip, with great eco tourism potential; incredible bird life, monkeys and the most enormous bats I have ever seen. The views from a cliffside Buddhist stuppa and temple were breathtaking.

The following Monday was perhaps our most memorable day. We started it off early by ceremoniously handing over 10 reconstructed, partially damaged houses to their owners. A Buddhist ritual preceded each "handing over" ceremony and as part of this tradition, we provided the homeowner with a "house warming" gift while they supplied guests with a feast.

Our visit to the primary school was a heart-warming experience of youthful exuberance and expression. On a wall outside one of the classrooms a sign read "Silence is golden." But the children were anything but quiet for our visit and although I’m sure the teachers were frustrated by their students’ lack of concentration, they were very hospitable and welcoming.

The primary school near Wanduruppa is a very basic, open ward group of structures, with extremely poor washroom facilities and water supply. The descriptor "extremely poor" is an understatement. There is a wall and a pole at which to pee and defecate. The school principal indicated that a proper toilet facility and clean water supply would be a priority. We gave the school the 1,000+ books that the children in Squamish collected before our departure. This collection will become the seeds of a future library that the Humanity Village partnership will build at the school. Linea Aqua was responsible for the post-tsunami clean up of the school and has already started to develop a computer room, an initiative that the Prime Minister’s Office was trying to develop across the country before the tsunami struck. Had even one person been online in this area the morning of Dec. 26, perhaps thousands of lives could have been saved.

It was the children who left the most indelible and lasting impression on us, with their contagious smiles and inquisitive eyes. When asked how they smiled so much despite the tsunami, one boy poignantly and with wisdom beyond his years answered: "We smile for you but on the inside we are still crying."

Our trip was brief, only two weeks, but our accomplishments significant in cementing our Humanity Village partnership with Linea Aqua and IUCN, assembling much needed information to facilitate a strategic, effective and sustainable rebuilding program, and meeting the wonderful people of Wanduruppa who welcomed us unconditionally. We also presented a document to the Prime Minister’s Office outlining our partnership and initiative that was received with respect and enthusiasm.

There are huge challenges ahead. Humanity Village is in the process of establishing charitable society status so that we can direct funds raised to this village and make good on our pledge to these people and the many volunteers, fundraisers and contributors to this project.

But perhaps our greatest challenge is to lead and inspire other communities, to communicate that an endeavour like this one is very tangible and rewarding, and yes, doable. Just imagine the cumulative effect this type of initiative could have if a "community to community" connection happened a thousand times across Canada with a thousand communities around the world, and how this could profoundly influence the next generation of children who will grow up with this new way of thinking and doing. Multiply that by the potential around the world and you no longer have a Global Village, you have Humanity Village, a paradigm shift in global consciousness.

A lofty goal to be sure, but Squamish is up to the challenge.