HOW A YOUNG EXPAT GAVE SHELTER TO TSUNAMI VICTIMS IN AMBALANGODA
by Dr. Tilak S. Fernando from London

Manjula Nishan Weeratunge, a Civil Engineer working in the UK for Mouchel Parkman (Consultants), took his Spanish wife Inma Garcia on holiday to his roots in Sri Lanka and landed on the Sri Lankan soil at early hours on 26th of December 2004. They had a scheduled programme to stay two days in Sri Lanka, then fly to Kerala and finally come back to Colombo for 5 more days before returning to London.

On the following early morning they saw, from their room at Mt. Lavinia hotel how tables and chairs were floating in the sea. Immediately they knew some thing was wrong somewhere and switched the TV on to see one of the worlds greatest natural disasters in living memory, 'Tsunami', which took more than 40,000 human lives and displaced over one million people in Sri Lanka. It was a colossal disaster combined with destruction to peoples' houses and property, their life long possessions and worst of all seeing their loved ones dying and perishing right in front of their eyes, within their reach, and yet not being able to do anything about it.

Immediately Manjula Weeratunge decided to cancel their holiday and help the innocent victims of his country. By coincidence his mother Rosy Weeratunga was in Ambalangoda at the time involved with a charity at an orphanage run by Ven. Sudharma, the chief incumbent at the Siri Vijayaramaya at Hirewatte, Ambalangoda. Rosy has sponsored five children and makes a regular visit annually to see the progress of the children personally. This very fact initiated Manjula to concentrate on Ambalangoda area having seen the pathetic conditions of victims having to live in large camps with inadequate facilities.

Subsequently, discussions with Ven. Sudharma, how to provide shelter for the homeless, initiated an idea in his mind to rebuild houses in Ambalangoda. He felt that the government was unable to provide housing for all the affected families in the area immediately, and furthermore, it became evident to him that the wheels of the government machinery were turning at snail's pace, due to the complex nature of the problem that existed.

In London, his sister Nishanthi having seen the devastation in Sri Lanka on TV immediately took a flight to Colombo to be on the scene, carrying with her a lot of necessities and toys for children of the victims. His elder brother Mahesh who lives in Sri Lanka joined the family team.

Spanish TV (TVE1) in Colombo, which helped them a lot in their intended endeavour, interviewed Inma. When she made an appeal to the people of Spain she was positive of the outcome. They returned back to Colombo and started frantically to formulate a project and started to work out modalities to raise funds.

On 5th January 2005 Manjula and Inma left Colombo, London bound. As soon as he got back to his desk, he wrote a personal memo to his Director requesting a month's no-pay leave, highlighting the Tsunami disaster, and seeking permission to get back to Sri Lanka and work on a housing project. The response from the Management was much more than he bargained for, for he received not only the leave approval but the company's blessings, support and paid leave to proceed with his relief project.

Manjula Weeratunga finally compiled a comprehensive project report to raise funds to construct 20 houses in Ambalangoda. Mr H Abeywickrama, (his friend's father) provided him with building plans. So with basic tools in hand he then approached individuals and large organisations in a vigorous campaign to raise funds.

Once the funds were in place, working plans in hand, and paid leave from his London employer, he was now ready for swift action. Immediately he started setting up of a Charity, Ayuda - UK (which means help in Spanish), to undertake house construction and other long term work in Sri Lanka.

It took him nearly five months to put his house construction jigsaw into place before he flew back to Sri Lanka to execute his plan. On 21 May 2005, during his first week in Sri Lanka, he met with a building contractor, Upul Guruge, who was constructing eco friendly houses. As a Civil Engineer Manjula was convinced on the sand-cement mixture in construction work Upul Guruge used, thus making a substantial saving overall. That meeting gave him a jump-start to commence work on the project, particularly having realised that Lions Club recommends and promotes this Eco friendly contractor in Tsunami construction work.

According to the building plan a typical house constructed on a 5 perches plot of land has two/three bedroom, one living room, kitchen and basic bathroom, running water and electricity facilities.

The Engineers from the UK were to manage the Project initially, and Manjula anticipated utilising the local labour in the construction work, to help the community with employment after the Tsunami disaster. It was further decided that the project management skills and the knowledge needed to be passed on to local engineers, thus empowering them with the skills to undertake future projects themselves without external technical assistance.

The construction work commenced on the 2nd of June 2005, and the first house was completed on the 22nd June, exactly within three weeks. Four more houses are being constructed and are due to be completed towards the end of July 2005. The project is made easy due to the transport economic factor- the building site has easy access from the main road and five houses are in the close proximity. The management for the scheme was structured in a most simple manner to compensate for any poor communication between the engineers and the contractors and thereby to keep a tight control of the finances.

During the whole mission the Project Manager is held responsible for managing the construction work- organising necessary materials and supplies, and in the area of negotiations with the contractors, suppliers and other bodies to ensure a smooth operation of the project. He is also given an added responsibility of keeping a tight control of the finances and to adhere strictly to an allocated budget.

The Assistant Project Manager is given the responsibility of the day-to-day administration of the project and making any technical decisions. He is also responsible for managing the two graduate engineers and providing technical guidance. He has to report directly to the Project Manager on a daily basis keeping him abreast with the progress of the project and of any problems on the site.

The Graduate Engineers were employed directly from a local university to undertake Surveying work and to deal with the local authorities. The estimated costs were based on current labour rates in Sri Lanka, as the Foreign Exchange rates fluctuate daily due to the current situation in Sri Lanka.

The construction of these houses will provide long-term stability for the people and helps them rebuild their lives. The cost for the whole project was estimated (allowing for the fluctuations in the currency market) at 50,000.

Manjula did not seek any financial assistance from the Sri Lankan authorities. "We were only worried about helping out those who had lost everything and wanted to provide them with a roof above their head. We did not have the time or the patience to procrastinate things as long as we managed to raise funds with the goodwill of our friends and colleagues from UK and Spain. Houses were constructed outside the 100 meter buffer zone and the people owned the land which made things very much easier for us to get on with our intended target with the full cooperation of the Gramasevaka", said Manjula Nishan Weeratunge.

Having satisfactorily built five houses so far they are now planning to build 20 or more. They have already visited some ear marked areas for this purpose where there are only a handful of permanently constructed houses at present.

When they went back to Ambalangoda to hand over the first completed house to retired Police Constable Dayawansa, "the experience was wonderful and my wife and I were very much touched by the smiling expressions with gratitude written all over their faces which could not have been said in thousand words", said Manjula Nishan Weeratunge.

Manjula Weeratunga would like to acknowledge with gratitude the support he received in many forms from his parents - Christy and Rosy, his wife's family in Spain, his sisters Chrysthanthi and Nishanthi, brother Mahesh, staff at Marian Martin & Joan Wood at Linbrooks Services Ltd; Diane Abeywickrama, Costain UK, Wijith Wijeratne, Sandy Perera, Lord Crathorne (Parochial Church Council) and above all Ven. Sudharma without whom there would not have been such a project at all!

The Charity Ayuda - UK is officially registered in the UK and their second objective is to open an orphanage in Sri Lanka and seek sponsorship for each child from the UK. His friend, Wijith Wijeratne, has already donated their family home in Mathugama for this purpose . It is estimated that refurbishing costs and transforming this house, with modern facilities, to be used as an orphanage would cost 10,000 (Ten Thousand) at least.

Any philanthropists who would like to help this young Sri Lankan expatriate in his worthy efforts to help the helpless in Sri Lanka could send in their contributions directly to HSBC Plc., 33 Town Centre, Hatfield, Herts. AL10 OJX - quoting AYUDA UK - Account No. 61491563 - Sorting code 40-23-19.