Poverty in Sri Lanka

The BBC reported today (article)  that the Sri Lankan army had taken the last of the major cities held by the Tamil Tigers and would soon have them surrounded. As in all wars, no matter how conscientious the warring sides may be about civilian deaths and injuries, they suffer tremendously. This is especially true in a fight against a terrorist movement that is rooted among a minority population. In Sri Lanka this is made worse because the Tigers tend to prevent movement of their people into a safe area. The Sri Lankan army and much of the rest of the world call them hostages to the Tigers. The Tigers call them supporters. Hostages or collaborators, they suffer.

I first visited Sri Lanka in 1983 just as the first full wave of communal violence broke out between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. The shops belonging to Tamils were still smoldering in Columbo when I arrived from Bangladesh where I was living with my family. I had come to work with Sri Lankan Christians to set up a relief response. The riot in Columbo was precipitated by a Tamil Tiger ambush in northern Sri Lanka in which nine Sinhalese soldiers were killed.

I finally returned to Sri Lanka last September to visit our work in eastern Sri Lanka among Tamil civilians, many of whom had been displaced several times as they tried to flee the fighting. As I met our mostly young staff, I realized that most of them had lived most of their youth and adult lives between my two visits. Because our work eastern Sri Lanka is largely among Tamils, most of our local staff are also Tamil. They have grown up in the face of a national conflict that became a part of everyday life.

I gained just a glimpse of what life is like now as we passed through one checkpoint after another. As we passed through checkpoints I was shielded from close questioning and body and luggage searches by my nationality and race—clearly not of Tamil or Sinhalese descent—and the World Concern flag and highly visible World Concern name and logo on our hood. The Sinhalese police and military have come to respect our integrity, the quality of our programs and our heart of service to the people.

As I passed soldier after soldier stretched out over kilometers of road, each in sight (during the daytime) of the next one along the road,  I tried to imagine the feeling of the lone military sentry in the middle of the night, whose major role is that of the canary in the mine—unable to hold off an armed assault from infiltrating  Tamil Tigers but whose violent death would alert a forceful response.

As I passed through the checkpoints, I also tried to imagine the growing panic of a young Tamil innocent of any terrorist activity or leanings as he realizes during his questioning that he is for some reason he does not understand falling under suspicion, Or the Tamil child trying to avoid forced recruitment by the Tigers.

As I reflected on the lives of our staff, so different from my own, I realized that Jesus could better understand than I.

  • Jesus lived in a country under military occupation. I imagined Jesus moving off the road with the twelve young men in his group as Roman soldiers passed, trying to obscure their “groupness” by separating, casting their eyes downward and fading into the sides of the road.
  • Many tried to recruit Jesus into the Zealots who carried out a low level insurgency against Rome. They appealed to the prophets who had predicted the coming of a victorious ruler who would free them from the Romans, portions of scripture that Jesus had heard many times from his childhood. His disciples certainly saw the military potential of a general who could heal the sick, raise the dead, feed a regiment from five small loaves of bread and two fishes, and control the weather.
  • Jesus sometimes moved in secret, answered questions in such a way to share his message without giving any specific cause for his arrest, and lived daily with his life under threat.

Even up to the night of his arrest, Jesus struggled with the decision whether to use his power to thwart and defeat his enemies or to die at their hand. During his arrest, for the first and only recorded time in his life, Jesus healed a wound given in an act of violence—a wound inflicted by his follower on one who had come to arrest him. This was the last miracle he performed before his death.

Jesus carried out his mission, giving his life to save those who killed him. He was arrested immediately following that internal struggle in the garden.

As I share with our staff, I appealed to them to model Jesus’ life in occupied Palestne, in many ways paralleling their own.

  • Jesus knowingly washed the feet of the enemy’s informant along with his other followers, illustrating for Judas and all of his disciples that true power lies in loving service and not in conquest and that true leadership is found in humble submission and not in command.
  • He showed that Christian martyrs die with words of forgiveness of their enemies on their lips and not curses.
  • By his death and resurrection, he showed that victory comes through apparent weakness and life springs from death willing suffered for the salvation of others.

I had been meditating on this quotation from Cardinal Suhard, at one time the Bishop of Paris, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”   Trying to understand how to be a Follower of Christ in Sri Lanka, torn by 24 years of war, helped me understand in a deeper way how Jesus’ way is so utterly different from any other.

Humanitarians Act to Stop Child Trafficking

Humanitarian organization World Concern helps stop human trafficking at the border of Cambodia and Thailand.
Humanitarian organization World Concern helps stop human trafficking at the border of Cambodia and Thailand.

She’s 13 years old and badly disfigured. Her eye has been gouged from her face, ripped out with a metal shard by a woman holding her captive in a Cambodian sex trafficking operation. The story of Long Pross is a difficult one to stomach, but as described in a recent New York Times OpEd piece by Nicholas Kristof, it is the kind of story westerners must hear.

It doesn’t matter the gender, and sadly it doesn’t matter the age. Trafficking children for indentured servitude, prostitution or sex slavery is an enormous industry. More than 1 million children are trafficked every year, sometimes for as little as $20. World Concern and partner agency CHO see it all the time at the Poi Pet border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand. The photos that you see with this story are all from that crossing.

The classic scenario is that predators will approach a poor family in Cambodia, telling children, or even their parents, that they have work for them in Thailand. Once the children say goodbye, they often never return. If they are one of the lucky ones to escape with their lives, they are often dumped in a park just inside the Cambodian border, near the gate.

Humanitarian Organization World Concern works to educate children and families to prevent this from ever happening. We do this with our School on a Mat program. An instructor gathers children in a shady area to hear an urgent message: do not believe the lies of work and opportunity. They learn how the scam works – and how to say no. Separate from that, we offer children a chance to learn and find opportunities in legitimate business. Some children learn how to sew; other teen-agers may learn how to repair motorcycle engines. We offer real, sustainable solutions, far from the horrors of trafficking.

Young men learn how to repair motorcycles as part of the World Concern program to stop human trafficking.
Young men learn how to repair motorcycles as part of the World Concern program to stop human trafficking.

My background is as a reporter in broadcast news. I have covered dozens and dozens of murders. After a while, even the awful seems to run together with the basic statistics of the story; how many bullets were fired, the status of the investigation, the time of the crime.

But I recall a situation where a news director specifically wanted to reveal graphic details in the heartbreaking murder of a young woman killed in a nightclub. I will always remember this case. The teenage girl went into an all-ages show at a nightclub, but no one remembered her coming out. There was a massive search across the city. She was only found days later buried in debris inside a storage closet. The accused murderer had a history of aggression and sexual deviance. All of this and more came out in the police investigation, and a great deal of it actually made air.

The news director’s rationale for disclosing these details: to cause outrage. To let the community know that this crime is something out of the ordinary, something heinous, something to not forget. And as I followed the criminal case of the sex offending murderer, I believe he was held accountable because the community knew the gravity of the crime.

This is why child trafficking stories like that of Long Pross need to be told. Life really can be horrible for vulnerable people like her. Though these stories may be difficult to hear, those of us with resources can and should act to protect the innocent.

Learn more about how World Concern protects children.

Teach one child how to be safe from trafficking for $35.

Humanitarian organization World Concern teaches children about the dangers of child trafficking.
Humanitarian organization World Concern teaches children about the dangers of child trafficking.

Be a Christmas Humanitarian

Who can resist a pig? One sow can produce 20 offspring a year.
Who can resist a pig? One sow can produce 20 offspring a year.

People are so pleased to be helping the poor this Christmas. Maybe it’s the economy, but it seems like the Global Gift Guide really resonates with people this year. There seems to be more empathy. We have had a lot of positive feedback from donors. They realize that there are plenty of human beings out there who still need the basics: food, shelter, water – and hope for the future.

I was talking with a lady in Alaska about a week ago who lives alone, outside a small town that doesn’t get a lot of sunshine around Christmas. She may live in an isolated area, but she certainly has compassion beyond her own community – and supports humanitarian causes through World Concern. She was particularly interested in the gift to prevent child trafficking. The gift is $500, so she went in on it with a friend.

The money they donated will provide tools to educate at risk communities in Cambodia, Thailand and Nepal about the danger posed by child trafficking. Because of people like this donor, children will learn that the promises they hear about jobs in other cities are scams that usually lead to sexual abuse or indentured servitude. And these are kids, often just 10, 11 or 12 years old!

If you are an American or live in some other Western country, you probably don’t need stuff. Stuff like gadgets. Or accessories for the house. Or unnecessary clothes. So the Global Gift Guide is a good alternative – a way to be a humanitarian this Christmas.

I encourage you to check out the Global Gift Guide if you haven’t already – especially if you are still shopping for Christmas. Give a goat! Or a pig! These gifts will be special to your loved one – and certainly to the poor and vulnerable people who will receive your compassion.

Visit the Global Gift Guide at www.worldconcern.org/ggg

Be a humanitarian this Christmas - give a goat!
Be a humanitarian this Christmas - give a goat!

Humanitarian Aid Resources

Whether you work for a humanitarian aid agency or simply care about the poor, it helps to find good resources. Below are a few of my favorites:

Humanitarian aid in kenya africa
Girl at an orphans and vulnerable children sign-up event in Kenya. She is likely an AIDS orphan.

Welcome to World Concern's "Humanitarian Aid" Blog

humanitarian aid blog
World Concern humanitarian Derek Sciba shows children near Narok, Kenya, his video camera. The children have gathered because they are AIDS orphans or vulnerable children.

This blog is a venue to share ideas about humanitarian aid, relief and development in some of the poorest countries on the planet. Some of what I will post here is news about World Concern’s humanitarian work across the world. Some of it will be closer to my own scope of vision.

I work at World Concern‘s international headquarters in Seattle, Washington, USA. We have our own stories here in the states about the ways people are supporting the work of World Concern – and how we are spreading the message.

I recently traveled to Kenya to see some of World Concerns many development projects. While there, I met those we serve, got to know my coworkers overseas, and was able to thank some of those amazing people who volunteer with World Concern in spite of their own difficulties.

My goal with this blog is to accurately reflect what’s going on at World Concern, as well as provide a forum to discuss issues related to international humanitarian relief. Along with my blog as the “Humanitarian,” will come blogs from our experts about disaster relief, poverty and child sponsorship.

Finding constructive, sustainable solutions to improve the lives of the poor presents such an enormous challenge, we cannot possibly initiate widespread change on our own.

Derek Sciba

World Concern

Communication Officer

Core Causes of World Hunger

world hunger in kenya
A boy in Embu, Kenya, eats a meal with humanitarian workers from World Concern.

I continue to be amazed at the complex causes of hunger. But whether a crumbling economy or prolonged drought is to blame, the result is the same: Families starve. It is immensely helpful to identify the root problems so that solutions can be found.

So with that being said, I enjoyed an article in Christianity Today about the hunger crisis. It both incorporated the necessity of Christians and humanitarians to act and attempted to identify some of the current causes of malnutrition, especially in Africa.

Below is an excerpt:

This new reality comes after 45 years of steady progress in global food production. Last year, for example, there was a record production of 2.3 billion tons of grain. But production has been unable to keep pace with demand. Grain stockpiles are at 30-year lows. Globally, 850 million people are chronically hungry. Experts cite the following reasons:

  • Failed harvests. Since 2006, multi-year drought, cyclones, and other natural disasters have dramatically cut harvests in some food-exporting nations. A six-year drought in Australia’s rice-growing region, for example, has caused its harvest to plummet.
  • Rising fuel prices. Demand for new oil and gas sources has triggered price spikes, thus increasing the cost of food production. Despite a recent decline from the $147-per-barrel peak this July, oil prices are still 60 percent higher than they were in 2005.
  • Increased demand for grain. About 100 million tons of grains and oilseeds are being diverted to produce biofuels every year. China and other developing nations are annually using millions of tons more of imported corn, wheat, and soybeans to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens.

The Plan: Plant 1,000 crosses for World AIDS Day

world aids day
World Concern is remembering World AIDS day by displaying 1,000 crosses. It represents the number of worldwide AIDS deaths that occur in just three and a half hours.

It’s rightfully disconcerting to see an enormous pile of white wooden crosses. There are too many to easily count. I had 300 of them in my SUV this morning. It took a couple of people to help me unload them.

World Concern has decided to raise attention to the fact that two million people die each year because of AIDS. Three out of four of those people who die are dirt poor and live in Sub-Saharan Africa. The population I’m talking about is diverse. And contrary to what some may believe, it isn’t a “gay disease,” or a disease of drug users. In Sub-Saharan Africa especially, it’s everywhere. It’s an anyone disease.

Anyway, our plan is to plant these crosses in front of World Concern’s international headquarters here in Seattle to raise awareness in our local community. We’re doing it on Dec. 1, on World AIDS Day. We’d also like some news coverage bringing attention to the continuing crisis – and what we’re doing about it.

Big numbers are often difficult to put in perspective. But here’s a glimpse of what we’ve experienced on this project. It’s taken several people a couple of months to create the crosses. At 1,000, we think we have a lot. But really, we don’t have nearly enough.

What amazes me is that the enormous pile accounts for only about four hours worth of AIDS deaths. That’s about the time between when you might get to work – and lunch.

At 1,000 crosses, it’s shocking. Each cross is a human life. A mom, dad, son or daughter. And with the display, we’ll not even able to represent one day. Humanitarian organizations like World Concern are part of the solution. We need your help.

Click here to find a promotional poster for the event and media contact information. World Concern has a variety of projects related to AIDS relief.

Humanitarian Aid in Darfur

humanitarian aid in Darfur
Refugees in Darfur leave everything to escape with their lives, only to be moved yet again.

Humanitarian aid and relief groups are asking President-elect Obama to pay attention to the human rights disaster in Darfur, Sudan, as soon as he takes office. The idea is referred to as a “peace surge,” a way to reach an agreement to work out terms of peace by bringing the warring groups to the table together.

Obama may have a better chance to work out a deal right now, because the president of Sudan has agreed to an immediate, unconditional cease-fire with Darfur rebels.

Here is a link to the CNN story on the Darfur:

Humanitarian Aid in Myanmar

Destruction after Cyclone Nagris, Myanmar. A blur has been added to this photo.
Destruction after Cyclone Nagris, Myanmar. A blur has been added to this photo.

Just imagine what’s left over from a major storm along the coast. Debris clogging a bay under a blue sky, floating and rolling with the waves and the tide. Branches, tarps, trash. Then imagine taking a closer look – and realizing that among the debris are bodies, bobbing and haphazardly mixed up in the mess. Bloated. Filthy. Sons, daughters, friends and wives. Dozens of humans, maybe even a hundred.

I saw a photo today the scene I just described. I may never forget it.

One of World Concern’s humanitarian relief workers in Southeast Asia took the photo several months ago. The location: Myanmar. You may remember a cyclone hit there a few months ago. It’s always difficult to grasp large numbers, but 138,000 people died in the storm, according to official figures. That’s the population of Syracuse, New York.

World Concern was working in Myanmar when the storm hit. We were helping people build simple livelihoods in the incredibly poor country. We were showing people techniques to run fish farms and helping them secure clean water supplies and education for their children. These kinds of projects bring people just off of the brink – and hopefully lay the groundwork for healthier, sustainable lives.

When the storm hit, that all changed.

World Concern Myanmar quickly switched from development mode into full-time humanitarian aid and disaster relief. Because we were one of a select few relief agencies permitted to be in the country, working there since 1995, we were in an excellent position to help. Nearly all of the 200 staff members at World Concern Myanmar are from the country. Undoubtedly, they all suffered personal loss because of Cyclone Nargris. Still, they continued to help with the relief efforts.

One of the most significant ways World Concern helped in Myanmar was to retrieve bodies. A tough responsibility. Not only did we want to respect the dead, it truly became a health hazard. I cannot imagine how emotionally traumatizing this work must have been for our staff.

Since the cyclone, people in Myanmar are rebuilding their lives, as best they can. We are helping them in a variety of ways, including the renewal of clean water supplies, reconstruction of homes and by offering them resources to get back to work.

I cannot forget the photo of the debris-clogged bay. I am just stunned by the amount of destruction and human loss people there have faced. All of this reminds me that even with economic turmoil here in America, we cannot possibly look away from disasters like this in good conscience.