Sri Lankan families break the cycle of poverty

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The Independent Online

The whitewashed bungalow in central Colombo is as old as independent Ceylon, perhaps a little older. There is a long, meandering crack in one of the walls, and years must have passed since the place looked smart. But for 46 children brought up on the streets of central Colombo it is a place of vital importance: a bridge from a life of hardship and desperation to one of happiness and hope.

The whitewashed bungalow in central Colombo is as old as independent Ceylon, perhaps a little older. There is a long, meandering crack in one of the walls, and years must have passed since the place looked smart. But for 46 children brought up on the streets of central Colombo it is a place of vital importance: a bridge from a life of hardship and desperation to one of happiness and hope.

The Sarvodaya Street Women and Children Project tackles Colombo's problem of urban poverty at the source, enabling parents to break the cycle of illiteracy and low expectations.

We arrive at the project before 9am. Already the place is humming with activity. Two small children are testing the durability of the swings in the front yard; a very pregnant pie dog comes smiling towards us.

Inside the cool shady bungalow, children as young as two are milling about among the miniature nursery furniture while the short, bright-eyed principal, Kusum Wijesingha, sets out the cheap, improvised toys and makes notes in a large register.

More children arrive all the time, including older girls in green, pleated skirts and striped green and white blouses, the uniform of the world's first street child brownie pack.

The Sarvodya project is just one of the many initiatives in Sri Lanka partly funded by the British charity Hope for Children, which The Independent has chosen as the recipient of this year's Christmas appeal, and which funds more work in Sri Lanka than anywhere else in the world. The centre is near one of Colombo's biggest markets.

Unemployment and poverty in the countryside over the past couple of decades have uprooted many country people and propelled them to the big city in the hope of finding work.

Once in Colombo many gravitate towards the district of Colombo 8 and its market where, even for the new arrivals, there are odd jobs to be done on the margins: selling mangoes, repairing shoes, fetching and carrying - enough to earn a few hundred rupees a week to keep the family's stomachs full and even send small sums to those even worse off back home.

It's a way of staying alive, but it's not exactly a life, especially for the children: living and sleeping on the pavement amid lorry fumes and market garbage, with no place to play and with parents too busy and demoralised, too close to the edge, to think about luxuries such as putting their children through school.

It's for children such as these that Sarvodaya provides the oxygen of hope. Parents bring their children here from 7.30am before going to work; some pick them up as much as 12 hours later. The place is open every day of the year. Twenty-five of the children are of pre-school age, and by 9.15 they are settled in small chairs at round tables, calmly making patterns on the table using old bottle tops, fitting bits of Lego together or playing with a bowl full of pebbles.

The smallest of the pre-school children is two; when they reach school age they will go on to local state primary school with the other children in the area from more prosperous backgrounds.

There are school age children in the Sarvodaya centre, too; raised on the streets beyond school starting age, they are now attending catch-up classes here so that in the near future they will be equipped to slot into the appropriate class in primary school.

Today, a young father called Sathye Seeli has brought two of his three children to the centre before heading off to his casual labouring job in the market.

"I started out on the street because I had no place to go," he explains. "I came to Colombo from Central Province when I was 12. My mother died, my father was a drinker and was not providing for us, so I quit school and came here looking for work."

He sent home some of the money he made to his younger brothers and sisters who had stayed behind. But in the meantime he married a woman called Shanti who bore him three children, Aravindra, Sewandi and Indika.

Sathye and his young family quickly found themselves in the Colombo poverty trap: making enough money - perhaps 3,000 rupees, about £27 a month - to survive, but not enough for anything else.

Hope for Children has given Sathye and Shanti a crucial leg- up in two different ways.

Through the Savodaya centre it has given the three children a proper start in life: Aravindra, the older boy, aged seven, is now in regular school. But it has also given the whole family a roof over their heads.

Through a second, separate scheme aided by Hope for Children, Sathye took a loan of 6,000 rupees to pay one year's advance rent on a house. He is steadily repaying the loan. It's a house of planks and corrugated iron in the hamlet of Obsekra pura, 15 minutes' walk from Sarvodaya, huddled on a narrow lane with others equally modest on either side.

The space, not more than 18 feet by 12 feet, is divided into two rooms. There's only one bed, so the rest of the family sleep on mats on the cement floor. There is no running water or electricity: light is provided by an oil lamp and the television is powered by a car battery.

By any Western standard it is a cruelly small space in which to raise three children. But it is clean and neat, there are framed pictures on the wall of Sathye and Shanti very serious in their wedding finery. It's a home.

"I fell into this situation because of my parents," Sathye says. "My children must do better."

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