In the last half of the month of April, we held a fundraiser to help Sri Lankans currently caught in the middle of the country's worst economic crisis. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to those who contributed to this cause (we have sent you personally a note of thanks!) Your purchase of my cookbook, Milk, Spice & Curry Leaves, helped to raise funding for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka. This effort will go a long way, but I didn't want you to hear that from just me. A message from Lara Perera Gunasekera, who has tirelessly worked at UNICEF in Sri Lanka for over a decade, and seen the country recover and rise up from many crises, shares with you why your donation will help. So here it is in her own words:
I started working for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka over 15 years ago, committed to making a difference for children. Now, two children of my own later and many years on, my motivation has not wavered. I often get asked why that is. The simple answer is that while the needs of children remain unmet, there remains much work for us to do. We must continue to be the loud voice standing up for children’s rights and stepping in to support children and their families when no-one else can. I simply want – as many of us do – a world where children are safe, protected, loved, educated and healthy so that they can thrive and reach their full potential.
"I know the road ahead is not going to be easy, but I am grateful that I work for an organization that can make a difference for the heart and soul of any country – its children."
I joined UNICEF in 2005, a few months after the tsunami devastated the country. The days were long and exhausting, and the scale of devastation felt unsurmountable. I remember the massive displacement camps housing hundreds of thousands of people and the extremely difficult conditions they lived in. I recall the trauma that affected families faced from losing loved ones and homes and livelihoods in the blink of an eye. I remember it so vividly because UNICEF was there with them every step of the way; ensuring that children had access to adequate food, to learning even within the camps, to health services, to water, sanitation and hygiene, and to child friendly spaces and psychosocial support for children that needed it. These actions helped restore a sense of normalcy in their lives which was critical for their healing. While the tsunami tested the people of Sri Lanka, it also highlighted their resilience and determination to bounce back. There were moving stories of communities coming together to help each other, and of the spirit of giving even from those that had little to give in the first place.
Just as the island started getting back on its feet, the civil conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils intensified in the North and East of the country, resulting in so much death, destruction and internal displacement. UNICEF had field offices in the conflict-ravaged areas of the country and remained on the ground even during the height of the conflict when most others were forced to pull out. I was so proud of my field colleagues who worked day and night, keeping calm as the office windows shook and the sound of bombing echoed in the near distance. UNICEF remained in these areas during and after the end of the conflict in 2009, helping restore critical services by constructing and equipping schools and hospitals, rehabilitating child soldiers, reunifying missing children with their families, providing psychosocial support, constructing water and sanitation facilities and protecting children. The end of the conflict has meant that the country can focus on development and peace building, and while the needs are enormous, it felt like the country was finally moving forward.
The Easter Sunday terrorist bombing in April 2019, followed by a global COVID-19 pandemic have been the blows that we did not see coming. The country has now plunged into the worst economic crisis it has ever seen. Sri Lanka’s children are at the heart of this crisis, and it is likely that all six million of them will be affected. The sudden unavailability and price increase of key commodities have meant that many staples are out of their reach and fuel shortages forced tens of thousands of people to queue for long hours outside petrol filling stations and face daily power cuts of up to 12–13 hours. Increasing levels of food insecurity and possible disruption to key services for children, such as health, nutrition, education and protection, are putting children, particularly the most vulnerable, at risk of malnutrition, dropping out of school, violence and exploitation. Once again, UNICEF has sprung into action, assessing the needs of children, mobilizing resources, procuring critical medicines and addressing gaps in health and education services.
I know the road ahead is not going to be easy, but I am grateful that I work for an organization that can make a difference for the heart and soul of any country – its children. To learn more about what UNICEF Sri Lanka does and how to donate please visit www.unicef.lk. You too can make a difference by donating. Every dollar helps UNICEF better reach children that need support; an investment that is the foundation upon which this country will build back….and build back better.
Lara Perera Gunasekera
Programme Officer | Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation
UNICEF Sri Lanka Country Office
Photographs on this page courtesy of ©️UNICEF/Sri Lanka/2011/2012
First image: Children studying in a school UNICEF newly built for them
Second image: Lara Perera Gunasekera pictured far left, with UNICEF colleagues demanding for a better world