By Jeevani Pereira
The life of a child is most valued one in any society, yet everyday we prove ourselves capable of looking past the rights of the innocent and allow crimes against them to float past our busy days especially when it comes to the street child.
This horrendously exploited group of children who are believed to number more than 2000 are open to constant peril, a loss of innocence from as soon as they can walk and absolutely no opportunity at education. However, coming across ‘Sanhinda’ Street Children’s Home in Meegoda and ‘Varam’ centre for Beach Children (the streets of the sea) in Hikkaduwa, one would find that the beginnings of hope for some of them was not that far away.
Though idealised and run by two different personalities – Professor Nandasena Ratnapala and Professor Harendra De Silva, the common thread that binds the two places is the non-profit organisation Serendib Stiftung (Foundation) based in Hamburg Germany, which funds them.
Visiting ‘Sanhinda’ and speaking to its founder, world famous sociologist, Prof Nandasena Ratnapala a few weeks before his passing, we discovered a group of people trying their best to make a safe place for street children.
"There is hardly any human value for these children and most of them end up begging, peddling drugs, stealing car parts, getting into prostitution or being abused," said the professor. Showing us a fragile four-year-old girl with a blank look on her face, the professor said that she was a new arrival to the home and was initially brought abused in a brutal manner by a man who owned a shop close to where she squatted with her mother. "These children are extremely restless and constantly want to go back to their old lives until time slowly helps them absorb their surroundings with a little discipline and growing respect for what they have," he continued. With 66 children and growing he said that teaching values and skills was something that would take them into the future. He went onto say that at Sanhinda, the children are given extra coaching for all the subjects taught in school, plus music, dancing and painting is taught to develop their aesthetic instincts.
Before ‘Sanhinda’ came into being, the idea for a home came to Professor Ratnapala after he did a survey on street children in 1983. Along with some lecturers and students in the faculty of Sociology in the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, the Professor started up a small sanctuary for 26 male street children at Saunders place and was looked after by him and the others from the Sociology Department. When more notice came to what the Professor was attempting an old school building in Colpetty was donated to the cause and then later onthe land at Meegoda where ‘Sanhinda’ now stands.
"When we first started the home we used to go asking shopkeepers at Fort to give leftovers so we could feed the children, ," he explained. "With the Serendib Foundation noticing us in 2005 we have been able to go forward without fear, as the funds they give us are enough to feed, clothe, educate the children and run the place." Furthermore, a provisional birth certificate is prepared for most children that come into the Home after estimations of their birth dates are looked into .
‘Varam’ on the other hand acts as a safety net for beach children, a place of refuge for them to come and relax as well as learn. "The idea for it started during the days I used to be the Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority and came as a project proposal to the World Bank for the prevention of AIDS," Professor Harendra De Silva said. Thus six centres were started up in areas susceptible to AIDS, in Pettah, Payagala, Seenigama, Anuradhapura, Weligama and Polhena. "Most of these places are tourist areas and much like the street children in the cities, the beaches act as streets close to the coast. These children are susceptible to tobacco and drugs and sexual exploitation by various tourists," he explained .
"The idea of the centre is mainly to prevent such possibility for these children. It was made with the idea of attracting them," he said. However, the NCPA project fell through after the professor left. But determined to continue it on his own, he now runs it under his NGO ‘Varam’ and has three centres, including the one in Hikkaduwa. "Television and DVD as well as computer facilities are available," Prof De Silva said adding that vocational skills were also taught there for those interested. "We were scraping through in the beginning and after we received funding from various organization including Serendib, which solely funds the Hikkaduwa Centre."
Founding members of Serendib Foundation were Christian H. Eckert and Uriz von Oerzen who were both in the media field and they invited Lalith Ganhewa also a media personnel o join them to find a means to uplift a broken country after the tsunami. Christian and Lalith had spent one month in Sri Lanka soon after the tsunami travelling over 3700 Km visiting and checking out over 30 projects in order to discover the best ones to ultimately support. "We originally wanted to concentrate on women and children and worked with schools providing uniforms etc," explained Eckert adding that they decided to concentrate on children alone with the idea that they were ultimately the future of the country.
Therefore, coming across Sanhinda and Varam they found where their motives could be appropriately executed. "If normal children get a roof over their heads, love from their parents and proper education, street children deserve it, too," spoke Ganhewa.
Serendib Stiftung (Foundation) in Germany are funding a total of 6 Projects in Sri Lanka. Out of them Sanhinda and Varam Projects are implemented Sri Lanka through Nestwaerme e.V. Germany headed by a Mrs. Petra Moske, an award winning prominent humanitarian worker in Germany.
Nestwaerme e.V. Germany has specialized working with disabled and under privileged children. They support few other disabled institutions in Sri Lanka.