Post-tsunami housing crisis brings split couple happily together again

News Stories, 27 December 2005

© UNHCR/L.Jeffels
Mohamed and Faleela and family, reunited, outside their UNHCR transitional shelter in Ampara, Sri Lanka.

AMPARA, Sri Lanka, December 27, (UNHCR) "We lived happily together for 19 years before the break up. Now we're back together, it's just like the old days," said Faleela Hameed, recently reconciled with her husband, M.I Mohamed Mubarak.

Now living together with their four children in a UNHCR transitional shelter in Chavalakadai, Ampara District on Sri Lanka's east coast, the couple had been separated for nearly ten years since the mid-1990s. But with the help of UNHCR and the Rural Development Foundation (RDF), Faleela and Mohamed put aside their differences and started again from where they had left off.

The events which led to their reunion began with the devastating tsunami of December 2004. Ampara was the district of Sri Lanka most severely affected by the disaster which claimed the lives of Faleela's mother, sister and niece.

Finding shelter in government buildings and on private land, Faleela spent the first few months after the tsunami trying to come to terms with the loss of her relatives. The next step was to try to get a degree of normalcy in her life. Key to this process was to find accommodation from which to rebuild her life.

Faleela's eldest son, who was living with his father, had heard that temporary shelters were available from UNHCR. He got a registration card so his mother could join them on the list of beneficiaries.

"RDF came to me asking why our family had applied for two shelters, so I explained that my husband and I had been separated for many years," said Faleela. "They said this is no good, you must unite for yourselves and the children. I told them it was too late for all that, but they persisted in trying to bring us together," she added.

RDF is UNHCR's main partner in Ampara, and is helping in the construction of nearly 3,000 UNHCR transitional shelters for tsunami-affected people in the eastern district.

A crucial player in bringing Mohamed and Faleela back together was Thaya Mayilvaganam, an RDF psychosocial counsellor.

"I tried many times to get them to speak to each other, but both were very stubborn. I was ready to give up at one point, but Faleela's neighbours pleaded with me to keep trying," said Thaya. It took some time, but her efforts were not in vain.

"I heard that Faleela had gone to visit her husband and children," Thaya reveals. "I went to see her a few days later and she had all her things packed and ready to go. I asked her where she was going, and she told me she had finally decided to move back in with her husband. They all seem so happy together now. It's wonderful."

Mohamed says the local community has been very supportive. "Our neighbours have been visiting us constantly, passing on their best wishes and congratulating us." He still cannot quite believe what has happened. "I didn't think we could get back to how things were, not after so long apart. But look at us now," he said. "It must be fate."

After being reunited for two months Mohamed, Faleela and their four children are now looking optimistically to the future. They have constructed an extension to their temporary shelter, are growing their own vegetables and their son is building a small kitchen area from surplus building materials.

Like many others displaced by the tsunami, Faleela is facing documentation problems. "I built a house on land owned by my mother, who promised to transfer the deeds to me," she declared. "Then the tsunami washed away everything we had, and now I have no proof of ownership." Faleela now wishes to give the land to her unmarried sister, and is trying to obtain new documentation from the authorities.

The refugee agency has set up a programme together with the Sri Lankan government to help survivors recover lost documentation such as birth, death, and marriage certificates, as well as land and property deeds. As part of this initiative, UNHCR Sri Lanka has organised more than 20 legal clinics in Hambantota, Galle, Ampara, Batticaloa, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts, to ensure the replacement of personal identity documentation lost or destroyed in the tsunami.

As fears of another tsunami are still rife in many coastal communities of Sri Lanka, Faleela and Mohamed are both relieved to be now living further inland. But this has reduced their employment prospects in a district which relies heavily on the fishing industry. Mohamed is currently working as a casual labourer, while the family is also sustained by his mother's pension.

With nearly all temporary shelters built and 95% of needs met, the focus for those involved in the shelter sector is beginning to shift from construction to care and maintenance. This is essential to ensure the longevity of transitional shelters while tsunami survivors await permanent homes. Practical considerations such as site management, access to adequate services such as health care and education are part of care and maintenance.

In a place which has suffered so much, there are now smiles on the faces of Faleela and Mohamed. Their son Sibly (15) watched as his brother built the new kitchen. He said he wants to be an engineer when he grows up. "You'll make a good engineer, always standing around while someone else does all the work!" his father joked.

By Lyndon Jeffels in Ampara, Sri Lanka

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Tsunami Aftermath in Sri Lanka

Shortly after the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, killing over 30,000 people and displacing nearly 800,000, UNHCR was asked to take a lead role in providing transitional shelter – bridging the gap between emergency tents and the construction of permanent homes. The refugee agency is not normally involved in natural disasters, but lent its support to the effort because of the scale of the devastation and because many of the tsunami-affected people were also displaced by the conflict.

Since the 26 December 2004 tsunami, UNHCR has helped in the coordination and construction of over 55,000 transitional shelters and has directly constructed, through its partners, 4,500 shelters in Jaffna in the north, and Ampara District in the east. These efforts are helping some 20,000 people rebuild their lives.

On 15 November, 2005, UNHCR completed its post-tsunami shelter role and formally handed over responsibility for the shelter sector to the Sri Lankan government. Now, UNHCR is returning its full focus to its pre-tsunami work of providing assistance to people internally displaced by the conflict, and refugees repatriating from India.

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In an unprecedented response to a natural disaster, the U.N. refugee agency – whose mandate is to protect refugees fleeing violence and persecution – has kicked off a six-month, multi-million dollar emergency relief operation to aid tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Somalia. UNHCR has worked in Sri Lanka for nearly 20 years and has the largest operational presence in the country with seven offices, 113 staff and a strong network of partnerships in place. The day of the tsunami, UNHCR opened up its warehouses in the island nation and began distributing existing stockpiles – including plastic sheeting, cooking sets and clothing for 100,000 people.

UNHCR estimates that some 889,000 people are now displaced in Sri Lanka, including many who were already displaced by the long-running conflict in the north. Prior to the tsunami, UNHCR assisted 390,000 people uprooted by the war. UNHCR is now expanding its logistical and warehouse capacity throughout the island to facilitate delivery of relief items to the needy populations, including in the war-affected area. The refugee agency is currently distributing relief items and funding mobile health clinics to assist the injured and sick.

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During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

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