Soybeans and Sewing Machines Help Conflict Survivors in Sri Lanka
By Michelle Scott*
August 17, 2009—Bombed out homes stand empty next to verdant rice paddies throughout the eastern Sri Lankan countryside. It is symbolic of what is happening literally and figuratively in this island nation. New life is springing up in midst of places that once saw death and destruction.
As Sri Lanka enters an era of peace after more than 20 years of internal conflict the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is there providing a helping hand to those most devastated.
UMCOR’s four field offices in Sri Lanka provide a hand up to people who were trapped in a cycle of displacement by the conflict and tsunami.
Soybeans and TVs
Sujithar is a widow who lives in the town of Muthur—a place that saw heavy fighting in 2006 and was deeply affected by Sri Lanka’s long running war. She lives alone in a ramshackle house that is part thatch and part corrugated aluminum. From the back, one can see the foundations of the home she lost in the war, her current shelter, and a concrete and brick house that is under construction.
Sujithar lives alone and scrapes by on subsistence farming. She has a small plot behind her home where she grows a variety of vegetables and talks about another acre she has elsewhere that she is unable to cultivate because there is no operational well nearby.
In this growing season, Sujithar tried something new. She was a part of UMCOR’s soybean project that was implemented in partnership with a local organization. She grew what added up to 500 kilos of soybeans on her small plot of land. While few people eat or grow soybeans in this region, they are a popular commodity for feed. She was able to sell the soybeans at a great profit and improve her living environment. The soybean plants also injected her heavily cultivated land with a dose of soil-boosting nitrogen—enriching her soil for other crops.
When asked what she did with her extra income, a wide smile spreads across Sujithar’s face. She takes her visitors to her back room and turns on a small TV. She is very proud of her new connection to the outside world thanks to a booming soybean crop. It’s a small luxury, but an important step for someone who has struggled for many years just to survive.
As she continues to build her new home brick by brick, Sujithar’s new soy crop gives her greater stability, and her new TV gives her a better connection to the world around her.
Helping the Most Vulnerable
UMCOR programs focus on those who have been left most vulnerable by the war and tsunami in Sri Lanka. Sujithar was left with few people to care for her needs as she ages. Even though she says, “I am doing fine by myself,” the extra income she is earning through the soybeans today will ensure her a more stable tomorrow as she grows older.
Young people also suffered greatly during the war, and UMCOR programs reach out to this vulnerable group, too.
Sewing a New Future
UMCOR is helping a group of young women who were not able to go to school because they were forced to be soldiers. A sewing machine, some training in clothes making and business skills have set these young women into motion.
Sitting behind the treadle sewing machine she received from UMCOR, Shayana* explains that she has been hired to sew school uniforms for a local school. This and other sewing projects allow her to help support her two sisters and pay for household expenses.
She shares a modest home with her sisters and mother. The house is spare, but clean. It has a concrete foundation with a thatch roof. UNCHR tarps are draped over a clothes line to create walls. Shayana’s sewing machine sits prominently in the front room.
Her father died in 1990 and her mother works cleaning houses, which barely provided for the family’s needs. The increased income from Syahana’s sewing is helping this family find their way out of poverty.
Soybeans and sewing machines are both stepping stones out of poverty for people who lost all their resources during the long war in Sri Lanka.
UMCOR in Sri Lanka
UMCOR established its office in Sri Lanka following the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Country operations are based in Colombo with program offices in Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Vavuniya. All of UMCOR's programs in Sri Lanka are carried out in close cooperation with the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka (MCSL).
In 2006, when fighting broke out in one of UMCOR’s project areas, UMCOR began helping people displaced by conflict in Sri Lanka in 2006. UMCOR and its partner, Muslim Aid, were among the first to respond to this crisis and were able to coordinate assistance to some 57,000 families that were displaced as a result of the fighting.
UMCOR currently partners with local and international non-governmental organizations and international organizations to respond to emergencies.
* Scott is the executive secretary for UMCOR communications