Koica’s aid touches young and old in Sri Lanka

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Koica’s aid touches young and old in Sri Lanka


Sri Lankan students from Sujatha Vidyalaya, a girls’ elementary school in Matara District, greet volunteers and members of Koica by waving the Korean flag in late November. The region was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Koica has been active in lending support to the reconstruction of the region. By Sarah Kim

MATARA/COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Hundreds of students from the Sujatha Vidyalaya, a Buddhist girls’ elementary school in Sri Lanka’s Matara District, the country’s southernmost region, lined the street waving the Korean flag along with their own national flag.

Dozens of girls filed down a narrow street in a parade to the beat of their accompanying drummers.

They were greeting a group of volunteers led by the Korea International Cooperation Agency (Koica).

Young girls in crisp white uniform dresses lined up with bouquets of flowers for the Koica delegation, both from the Sri Lanka office and from their headquarters in Seoul, and members of the Korean media on Nov. 28.


A queue of patients line up at the Korean Clinic in central Colombo. Over 150 patients visit the clinic, currently headed by chief consultant Dr. Kim In-kyu, to receive treatments daily. By Sarah Kim

With the bright smiles on children and teachers alike, it was hard to remember that coastal Matara was one of the regions hit hardest by the Indian Ocean tsunami 10 years ago.

Korea was one of the countries that reached out to the region in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, offering emergency relief, assistance rebuilding infrastructure and other humanitarian support.

Koica first opened its Sri Lanka Office in 1995 and over the past decade has offered aid in areas such as education, health, governance, waste management and infrastructure improvement. The agency has a total of 76 officials dispatched across Sri Lanka as of 2014.

“Sri Lanka places a strong emphasis on education, which is funded by the government,” said Cho Kyu-chan, head of the Koica Office in Sri Lanka. “It even has three ministries dedicated just to education, and Sri Lankans boast a high literacy rate of over 98 percent.”

He added, “The oldest of these elementary students were born around the time the tragic Asian tsunami struck in 2004.”

“I have taught at the school for 20 years,” said Adandha Gamage, a first grade teacher. “Luckily, all of my students survived the tsunami. But I knew several small children that were closer to the coast that died.”

The group of two dozen members of Koica and Korean reporters participated in various activities at the school, drawing wall murals, planting grass and repainting the rusty playground equipment as the students watched.

They also engaged in activities to share Korean culture with the students, such as painting Korean flags and making bibimbap, or rice mixed with vegetables. A Koica member was dispatched to the school to teach art and was responsible for bright mural drawings of whales and other sea creatures on the school’s walls.

After their exposure to Korean culture, the students were eager to learn more. Two 10-year-old friends, Madashani and Parami, asked between activities, “What’s your name? Write it down.” They looked at their notebooks with curiosity then grinned at each other. “Write our names in Korean!”

Gamage, who had picked up a few greetings in Korean from the Koica teachers, said, “I like your language very much and would like to visit Korea a lot, especially your temples. I hear people enjoy meditation a lot there. But I think a main difference is that your people are very quick and our people like to take things slow.”

The Korean delegation, led by Koica Vice President Kim In, also brought a box of gym supplies for the elementary school, which has 1,470 students.

Koica’s activities at schools in Sri Lanka inspired some, like Pavani Punsara Weerasekera, an 18-year-old student of Sujatha College, to dream of studying abroad.

Weerasekera was the winner of the 6th Korean Language Speech Contest in Sri Lanka last year, and in August, she visited Korea to participate in the final competition.

“I started learning Korean because it was so fun,” she said. “I was inspired by my kind Koica teachers.”

Weerasekera learned Korean from a Koica gym teacher-but it was her personal drive that enabled her to study the language. And her visit to Seoul was an unforgettable one. “I want to go to college in Korea,” she said. “I want to become a good teacher, just like my Koica teachers.”

Aftermath of the tsunami

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed over 30,000 Sri Lankans and displaced another 100,000 families.

The large number of Sri Lankans living near the coast resulted in a high number of casualties, and Matara was one of the worst affected areas.

In 2005, Koica launched a $7 million project to rebuild and expand the Mahanama Bridge in Matara, which was damaged by the tsunami.

Mayor of the Matara Municipal Council N. Sosindra Handunge said, “This bridge was built after the tsunami in 2004 and has been very helpful to the people as it connects two very important cities of Matara and Hambantota and the southern region.”

The 90-meter (295-foot) Mahanama Bridge, which was completed in 2007, further boosts the connection between the capital of Colombo and the southern province of Hambantota, hometown of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

“There were over 600 households here that were victims of the tsunami,” Mayor Handunge said, killing around 1,800 residents. “In a sense, the new bridge enabled the families who survived the tsunami to have a new start.”

Shantha Punchihewa, a 48-year-old resident of the town who lost his sister and several relatives to the tsunami, said, “I am very grateful to the Korean government for building the bridge.” He said that the bridge helps students commute to schools and people go to and from work.

The Korean government provided a total of $414 million in grants and concessional loans to Sri Lanka between 1987 and 2012.

Koica’s total aid jumped following the tsunami, from $8.26 million in 2004 to $33.21 million the following year and $57.25 million in 2012.

Between 1991 and 2013, Koica provided a total grant volume of $97 million to Sri Lanka in areas including emergency relief, education, energy and industry and health. The agency is expected to provide $10 million this year.

Koica’s activities included building drainage canals and infrastructure such as rebuilding the 230-bed Matara Maternity Hospital, which was damaged by the tsunami, and providing the latest medical equipment.

Koica’s educational programs range from primary schools to colleges and vocational training. In a $5 million project between 2011 and 2014, Koica constructed 12 schools and 11 teachers’ residences in the northern Killinochchi District to help around 30,000 students in the region.

In 2010, it also provided desks, chairs, blackboards and other facilities to schools in the Ampara and Batticaloa Districts. Its $2.7 million project to upgrade the Jaffna College of Technology in northern Sri Lanka was completed in 2010.

Dilsan Sambat, 30, a resident of Matara who uses the Mahanama Bridge daily, called out “Annyeonghaseyo!” (or “hello” in Korean) when he saw the Koica banner.

He said he learned Korean at the Koica-Matara Friendship Education Center, which opened in July 2013. It offers courses in the Korean language, computer skills and taekwondo. He demonstrated how to write his name in Korean letters, and admitted, “I don’t know the English alphabet, but I can write it in Korean hangul.”

And through the classes he took at the center, he said, “I am able to go to Korea to study at a university next year.”

Traditional Korean medicine

Ruwandika Kathriarachchi, a 48-year-old woman, has been getting treatment for the past three months at the Korean Clinic in Colombo, which offers traditional and indigenous medicine.

“When I started treatment in September I had bad arthritis in the knees and it was so painful I could not even climb up steps and had to take the elevator,” she said on Nov. 27, as she waited in a long queue of patients, ranging from the elderly to children.

“Now, I come just once a week and I have no problem with the stairs,” she said.

Dr. Kim In-gyu, chief advisor to the Korean Clinic, said, “Patients here seek out Korean medicine because as a country rooted in Buddhist traditions, they have a preference for natural remedies. They say that they find fewer side effects.” Sri Lanka has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years and the majority of its population is Buddhist. More than 150 patients visit the clinic daily, where treatment is free.

The clinic is comprised of Dr. Kim and three practitioners. Koica donated the Korean Clinic to the National Ayurveda Hospital in 2004, which has further helped train over 170 local practitioners of oriental medicine.

“Dr. Kim is a good and kind doctor,” Kathriarachchi said, “friendly with all the patients.” She added in a whisper, “He’s actually better than the other doctors here.”

Sri Lankan Minister of Indigenous Medicine Salinda Dissanayake said, “The Korean Clinic is being used well by our country’s people not just for treatment but also for educational purposes. Acupuncture is very popular in our country these days.” He added that through mobile treatment services, “People in the rural areas are also getting to known Korean medicine very well.”

Greener growth strategy

Not all of Koica’s projects are embraced by the locals, however, and the organization’s plan to open a sanitary landfill in northern Colombo was initially met by resistance.

But after years of delay, the Dompe Green Park Operation Sanitary Landfill opened with a ceremony on Nov. 27 attended by Sri Lankan officials including Minister of Environment and Renewable Energy Susil Premajayantha.

Dompe residents and officials looked on as the first load of trash was dumped into the empty landfill with a capacity to handle up to 90 tons of waste a day. It is expected to last between 15 to 40 years. Koica provided a $4.5 million grant to design and build an integrated system of managing solid waste in Dompe to prevent environment pollution and contamination.

Premajayantha said at the ceremony, “Due to various protests by people and politicians living in the vicinity, there was initially a six year delay.

“Now we have a plan to overcome the issue of solid waste collecting especially in urban areas.” He said that instead of dumping waste into open areas, there is a system that is sanitary and environmentally friendly.

After the landfill is filled and covered with soil, he said, “We can use it for other services” like playgrounds.

There will be similar projects, he said, in at least four other locations. “This will be a model for other local governments.”

“This project is one of the prime examples to show how Koica supports Sri Lanka’s plan to achieve socially and environmentally sustainable growth,” Koica Vice President Kim In said.

He said the comprehensive waste management system is a pioneering solution for waste management, as well as one that meets the challenge of environmental protection by preventing soil and water systems from being contaminated.

“The sanitary land fill system is an innovative in Sri Lanka,” said Kim. “Therefore, Koica decided that establishing the landfill infrastructure alone is insufficient for the sustainability of the project. Thus, it became our priority to provide technical support as well as technical assistance in transferring the technical know-how through training.”

Koica also built the International Conference Center in Hambantota, which includes a 1,500-seat auditorium, the largest in the country.

In addition to Koica’s $8.7 million, the Sri Lanka government signed a $12.22 million contract with Korean constructor Daebo Engineering and Construction to build an extension to the convention center, including three conference rooms and a cafeteria.

Up to 1,000 people visited the International Conference Center daily when it first opened in November 2013, said Cho Kyu-chan, a representative of Koica’s Sri Lanka office.

“It’s a success story when we see that our [official development assistance] efforts can turn into investment opportunities for Korean businesses,” he said.

Korean Ambassador to Sri Lanka Chang Won-san said, “Koica worked hard here so their presence is even larger than the embassy’s.”

Colonial history

Sri Lanka, like Korea, has a history of colonial rule dating back to the 16th century under the Portuguese, Dutch and British until it achieved independence in 1948. A nearly three-decade long civil war ended in 2009, and since then, the country has been on a spurt of economic growth and reforms.

“We suffered three years of war but this country suffered 30 years of war,” said Ambassador Cho. “Korea is a country that has received a lot of help when we were recovering from the Korean War, so it is our responsibility to return that favor.”

Over 1,200 Sri Lanka government officials and personnel have been invited to Korea on training and scholarship programs.

The Association of Koica Fellows, or AKOFE, was founded in 1999 and has over 1,700 members. AKOFE President Roshan Serasinghe, a deputy general manager of United Motors Group, told reporters on Nov. 30 how he took a two-year master’s program in international trade in 2003 at Kyung Hee University.

“I have undergone different training programs in Thailand and the Netherlands as well,” he said. “But the Korean scholarship stood out because of how much Korea takes care of your needs.

“It was a difficult program, so I studied until 2 a.m. every night. But the program was very precise and structured.”

He learned subjects such as international commercial law and specialized in Korea’s development policy. This resulted in opportunities to be promoted when he returned to Sri Lanka, when he was an official at the Ministry of Trade. “I was able to share the knowledge with senior officials.”

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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