By Zeng Qian-yu, Yuan Shu-zhen, and Wu Xiu-ling
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Photos courtesy of Tzu Chi Sri Lanka
Despite political and economic turmoil, Tzu Chi volunteers continue to work for the needy in Sri Lanka. They are sustained by their unwavering love.
With gasoline in scarce supply, volunteers rode bicycles to visit needy families. In one instance, a group of volunteers rode as much as 48 kilometers (30 miles) in a day to visit five families.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that we are unable to include you in the recipient roster for our distribution this time,” said Tzu Chi volunteer Victoria Paranavithana to Etin Signo. She had determined that Etin, 88 and living alone, didn’t meet the application criteria. He was receiving a monthly stipend for the elderly and earning income from working odd jobs, which also provided lunch.
Instead of being upset, the senior took some money out of his pocket and said, “I want to donate it to Tzu Chi.” Though he had lost the coin bank that volunteers had given him before, the idea of saving to make a donation to help the needy was not lost on him. Volunteers were reluctant to accept his money, but he insisted.
After he left, they decided to pay him a visit in his home. The volunteers hoped they might find a way to really help this man of nearly 90 years of age live a little more comfortably.
Struggling to get by
In early 2022, signs of economic problems began to emerge in Sri Lanka. In May, the government defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time. In July, the government declared bankruptcy. With its foreign exchange reserves exhausted, the country was unable to import fuel and food. Petroleum, gasoline, pharmaceuticals, and food were in extremely short supply. Sri Lankans saw the price of their daily necessities double within six months. The Tzu Chi Colombo office began to receive five to eight phone calls a day for help. The volunteers receiving such requests were affected by the economic crisis too, and could empathize with those in need on the other end of the line.
People spent a lot of time waiting in lines for gasoline, sometimes for days on end. Udeni Kumara, a Tzu Chi volunteer in Hambantota, said that many people waited in gas queues through the night, sleeping either in their cars or on the ground. Volunteers once took turns waiting in a gas queue to obtain enough fuel to transport 22 needy patients to a hospital to receive cataract surgery, but after four days of waiting they only managed to purchase 15 liters (4 gallons). It was only enough to transport nine of the 22 patients to the hospital and back; the remaining 13 patients who lived closer to the hospital had to make it there on their own.
Etin Signo, 88, who lives alone, is poor, but he insisted on donating money to Tzu Chi.
The political and economic chaos began to stabilize in October, but life remained tough for most people. Rosalie Chen (陳尚薇), a staffer at Tzu Chi headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, pointed out that food and gasoline prices in Sri Lanka rose about 43 percent for the year. Power was out 13 hours per day in April and May before going down to three hours of outage, only to increase to ten hours in October. Fortunately, the two Tzu Chi offices in the country, in Colombo and Hambantota, are equipped with solar panels, so their power supply was only minimally affected.
Sri Lanka has a population of 22 million, of whom about a quarter live below the poverty line. The government provides about US$0.75-1.50 to each needy family per month, hardly enough to support a household. Starting in April, Tzu Chi held distributions of necessities in Colombo, Central Province, Eastern Province, Hambantota Great Love Village and nearby villages, and at Tzu Chi National School. They had completed seven distributions by October, benefiting 31,172 people in 7,793 households. Some families in that number received help more than once.
Rosalie Chen said that Tzu Chi purchased rice, lentils, flour, cooking oil, and spice for the distributions. “We gave out shopping vouchers in the past,” she said. “But given the current food shortage, needy families may not be able to buy what they need if we give them shopping vouchers or money.”
With the gasoline shortage, people came to distribution venues on foot or riding bicycles. When the government started setting weekly gasoline quotas for vehicle owners, Tzu Chi volunteers began donating their own fuel passes so that they and their fellow volunteers could have enough gasoline to reach distribution sites. The managers of two gas stations near the Tzu Chi Hambantota office knew that Tzu Chi is an organization that helps the needy, so when they had extra gasoline, they gave Tzu Chi priority to purchase it.
At the same time large demonstrations broke out in the nation on July 9, volunteers in Hambantota were holding their scheduled distribution of necessities for the needy. Volunteers in Colombo, on the other hand, cleared an open tract next to a recycling station so they could plant vegetables and fruit trees in the hope of lessening the pain of food shortages.
After delivering rice to a Tzu Chi distribution venue, a man who works for the rice supplier carries goods for an aid recipient.
You helped me, now I help him
“My food has come from the kindness of others. I’m truly grateful for Tzu Chi’s help over the last three years,” said Suman, 67. “The aid I receive each time sustains me for two months and relieves me of worries.” Suman shared his thoughts as he visited the Tzu Chi Colombo office to apply to receive aid in an upcoming distribution that the office was holding for needy families in Kesbewa, the district in which the office is located. It was the first distribution for September for the office. Unable to work because of a disability, Suman had been a long-term recipient of Tzu Chi’s care.
Suman gets around on his hand-propelled tricycle, which goes about as fast as walking. It took him 90 minutes to reach the office on this day. “May I apply here without going inside?” he politely asked a volunteer when he had arrived. “It’s a big hassle for me to get off my tricycle.” The volunteer immediately stepped towards him to check his personal information.
Suman was one of the 1,413 low-income families who received goods from Tzu Chi Colombo in its first distribution for September. The people sent by the rice supplier for the event not only helped unload the rice but even carried heavy bags of rice for recipients who needed extra assistance. Some children from a Jing Si aphorism class zigzagged throughout the venue, offering drinking water to the recipients. (Jing Si aphorisms are short sayings by Dharma Master Cheng Yen). The children also put the distribution goods in order so that people could more easily grab them.
Each family received 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of rice and about ten kilograms (22 pounds) of other food items, enough to last an average family for a month. Getting such a weighty load of gifts home was no easy task. Some women together hired a driver to take them and their goods home. When the driver learned that the women were returning home from a distribution for needy people, he waived his fees.
Though many people came to take goods home, many gave back to Tzu Chi as well. They had previously received coin banks from Tzu Chi, so they brought the banks, now filled with money, to the distribution to donate to the foundation. Love was contagious. Their donations touched first-time aid recipients and prompted them to donate as well. In the end, Tzu Chi received nearly US$300 in donations from the aid recipients.
In 2021, the Sri Lankan government had stepped up its efforts to push farmers to farm organically. Many farmers were caught unprepared and suffered poor harvests as a result. With the help of Venerable Mahawela Rathanapala of the Buddhist Gem Fellowship, Tzu Chi volunteers went to Central Province and Eastern Province in late September to distribute aid to 300 disadvantaged farming families there.
The first day of distribution took them to the Doluwa district. At the event, Venerable Mahawela Rathanapala listened intently as Tzu Chi volunteer Arosha Paranavithana introduced the foundation to the farmers in attendance. What the Venerable heard touched him deeply, so after the distribution he searched the Internet to learn more about Tzu Chi. The following day, when another distribution was held in the Dehiattakandiya district, the Venerable couldn’t wait to share with the crowd what he had learned about Tzu Chi. He finished all that Arosha had to say to the beneficiary families. Though surprised, the Tzu Chi volunteers on-site were amused at his enthusiasm.
Many women brought their children with them to the distribution because their husbands were at work and there would be nobody at home to care for their children. Priyanthika Kumari held her baby, just five weeks old, during the distribution. Little did she expect to receive such a heavy gift, for which she was overjoyed. Unable to carry both her baby and the goods, she called her husband who was working an odd job to come and help get the goods home.
Aruna, the supplier of goods for Tzu Chi’s distribution in Dehiattakandiya, said, “The government offered ten kilograms [22 pounds] of rice and a kilogram [2.2 pounds] of milk as aid, but that was sorely inadequate for some families.” Referring to the Tzu Chi distribution, he said, “This is the first time that outsiders have been here to give out aid.” Once he learned how Tzu Chi raised funds to help poor families, he provided vegetarian lunch for the volunteers. Volunteers were truly appreciative that so many people were willing to give.
Each individual may have limited strength, but they, like fireflies, could all give out their flashes of light. The volunteers in Sri Lanka were determined to inspire more people to join hands together to serve the needy. In so doing, they hoped to be able to bring light to the darkest corners in society and relieve as much suffering as possible.
Children from a Jing Si aphorism class served drinking water to aid recipients at a distribution in September 2022.