Durham project still helping victims of the Boxing Day tsunami

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA    'Professor Joy Palmer-Cooper with five-year-old Kumudi in Palan West
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 'Professor Joy Palmer-Cooper with five-year-old Kumudi in Palan West
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A Durham-born project’s tireless efforts to help rebuild Sri Lankan communities devastated by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami have proved a success. MARISSA CARRUTHERS takes a look at how Project Sri Lanka has gone from strength to strength.

Seven years ago today a giant wave swept across the Indian Ocean, destroying everything in its path.

Opening ceremony at Ihala school

Opening ceremony at Ihala school

No one could predict the devastation that was to ensue as one of history’s deadliest natural disasters hit 14 countries.

The 30ft wave that came crashing down on Sri Lanka killed more than 33,000 people, left hundreds of thousands homeless and crushed the country’s economy and infrastructure.

In the wake of the disaster, people from across the globe clamoured to help, with millions of pounds being raised within days.

Aid workers and volunteers flocked to the devastated countries to help and aid work quickly got underway.

But one project held back and took time to assess how, in the long-term, it could really help Sri Lankans rebuild their lives, homes and businesses.

Professor Joy Palmer-Cooper, of Durham University, watched the humanitarian crisis rapidly unravell in a country she had grown to love, and knew careful planning would provide the best long-term aid.

She took her time establishing crucial links with organisations in Sri Lanka, including Sarvodaya Shramadana and Rotary Sri Lanka which have both proved instrumental over the years, and in the immediate aftermath visited the worst-hit villages.

During her trips, she listened to heart-wrenching tales of children who had been orphaned, families that had been torn apart and people who had lost their livelihoods and homes.

On her return, she launched a fund-raising drive and joint initiatives with the university, Durham Cathedral and other charities.

Later that year, Joy launched Project Sri Lanka, which aimed to raise enough cash to rebuild a destroyed school in one of the southern villages of Sri Lanka.

The following year saw the first Durham University-funded school open its doors in the southern village of Palana West.

And it didn’t take long for the project to snowball.

Six years on and one school is soon to become 10 as Joy gears up to return to the country next month, to attend a laying of the foundation stone ceremony.

Project Sri Lanka is now a registered charity, and the hard work and huge efforts made to help the country get back on its feet look set to continue well into the future.

“It’s hard to believe all this started in 2005,” said Joy.

“Right from the outset we wanted this to be long-term, not just going in, doing something and leaving the country.

“I’ve seen that happen too many times where a school is built then left, and five years later it’s falling apart with no one to help.

“We always wanted to be able to ensure the sustainability of what we are doing into the future and I feel we’ve done that by establishing ourselves as a charity with an independent board of trustees.

“Over the last few years, we’ve managed to develop far stronger roots in Sri Lanka and have now rebuilt nine schools for young children and community buildings.

“We hope to have the 10th finished by July 2012.”

As Project Sri Lanka has spent more time in the country, it has started to help in other areas not hit by the tsunami, with three of its schools lying inland in hill country.

“These areas were not necessarily affected by the tsunami,” said Joy. “But there are still people living in absolute dire poverty there.

“There’s no opportunities for young children and no schooling at all.”

Prof Palmer-Cooper said some tsunami-hit areas have been redeveloped but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“There has been a lot of rebuilding and in seven years people have moved on.

“But there is still an awful lot of people who remember the dreadful day they lost their mothers, husbands and children.

“If you scratch below the surface you can still see the emotional and psychological trauma.

“There’s still a lot of houses standing as piles of rubble and half-built houses that have been like that for years.

“A lot of areas are still suffering in the aftermath of the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers as well, which only ended in 2009.

“Since the war, Sri Lanka’s economy has taken a turn for the best and there seems to be a lot of investment from China and tourism has increased.

“The country is definitely picking itself up and moving in the right direction, but there are still a lot of isolated rural communities that need a lot of support.”

The project has also launched an adopt a child scheme where kind-hearted members of the community can support youngsters in the country by funding their schooling.

Already, about 50 people from the Durham area have signed up to the scheme and are supporting a child’s valuable education.

“It’s tremendous for Durham that it started this all and that the people have supported it for all these years.

“Everything Durham has done has been amazing and we hope it will continue into the future.”

For more details on the project and how to help, visit www.projectsrilanka.org.uk.


- A total of 275,000 people were killed in 14 countries, covering two continents.

- An estimated 40,000 to 45,000 more women than men were killed in the tsunami.

- A 1,200km section of the earth’s crust shifted beneath the Indian ocean and the earthquake released stored energy equivalent to more than 23,000 Hiroshima bombs.

- Speeds of 500km per hour were reached as the tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean.

- Within 10 minutes of the earthquake, tsunami waves started to strike the Nicobar and Andaman Islands.

- Within two hours, both Thailand and Sri Lanka had been hit. The east coast of India was hit shortly after.

- Three hours after the earthquake, tsunamis hit the Maldives and more than seven hours later hit the Somali coast.