The way the 26-old war in Sri Lanka ended was not pleasant as is well known to the world. Apart from the many innocent lives that were lost, many people became homeless, orphans and widows. Thousands of them were without limbs and legs, hands and arms, and had to live the rest of their lives with one or more of their bodily organs scarred, maimed or crippled. The flow of dry rations and other commodities that were temporarily available was no solution to the problems and struggles they endured on a permanent basis.
They needed compassionate hands that would embrace them as they were. They wanted understanding and magnanimous hearts that would respect their dignity though they were handicapped. They desired loving care rather than quick cure. They were really looking for some light at the end of the tunnel… In other words, for a silver lining in the thick clouds… It is in this backdrop of circumstances and fervent expectations that VAROD (Vanni Rehabilitation Organization for the Differently Abled) emerged initially as a Claretian ministerial endeavor in keeping with the Congregation’s traditional style of doing what is urgent, timely, and effective. Its beginning was in May 2009.
VAROD had humble beginnings with a few needy inhabitants living in a rented house with a Claretian as their companion, head and benefactor. When it was established, there was no land, no office, no trained or experienced staff, and no stable funds flowing in. The project being embarked upon was big without doubt. It is important to mention that Sri Lanka became a dependent delegation of the Province of Germany only this year and the Congregation has been present in the country for the last 20 years. Until February 2012 it was called Sri Lankan Mission.
1. What and Where is VAROD?
The last General Chapter document Men on Fire with Love reaffirms the priority of the Congregation for prophetic solidarity with the impoverished, marginalized and those whose right to life are threatened. It is this priority of the Congregation that is given expression through the ministry of VAROD. Enabling Better Ways for Living is the motto of VAROD. Its mission is obvious from its name: the rehabilitation of the physically (and mentally) handicapped people largely due to war and also by nature. VAROD does not call them handicapped but calls them “differently-abled” or people with alternate strengths. VAROD ministries are located in the northern part of Sri Lanka (Districts of Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya) where the need is very strong at present.
VAROD is situated in the vicinity of the town of Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka, about 200 kilometers from Colombo, the Capital. Its environment is truly natural and beautiful though the climate is mostly tropical throughout the year. Under civil jurisdiction it is situated in the district of Vavuniya while under ecclesiastical jurisdiction it is in the diocese of Mannar.
2. Ministries of VAROD
VAROD embraces a wide range of activities and projects: a) CBR (Community-based Rehabilitation) programs in the villages, b) Welfare Centers for boys and girls, c) VAROD LIFE – Rehabilitation center, d) Sponsor a Differently-abled Child or family program, and a few more projects: They include CBR training and formation at the camps, capacity training for the newly recruited staff, psychological counseling, physiotherapy, distribution of orthopedic appliances, wheel chairs, white canes, hearing aids and artificial limbs.
3. Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR)
According to the World Health Organization, “CBR focuses on enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families, meeting basic needs and ensuring inclusion and participation. CBR is a multi-sectoral approach and has 5 major components: health, education, livelihood, social and empowerment.” CBR is the main focus of VAROD, though due to practical and security reasons, the project is yet to see its full implementation. At present a large number of the differently-abled people receive the care and assistance of VAROD from their homes. They are regularly visited by VAROD staff.
4. VAROD a Home for Shared Mission
“Do it with Others,” is the document of the workshop on shared mission held in Guatemala in 2005. It highlights the fundamentals and scope of shared mission. It also points out the spiritual ingredients of shared mission. VAROD encompasses the scope of the things highlighted in the document that are well-implemented as described below. Two Claretian priests are involved in the project fulltime. VAROD has a staff of nearly 100, both volunteer and paid. VAROD also benefits from the services of two Holy Family sisters (residing fulltime at the Girls’ home) and the visiting Holy Cross sisters who render medical assistance. Counselors of an institute called Amaithi Thendral (Gentle Breeze) visit the center two days a week to offer psychological support and rehabilitation. International organizations such as ZOA, Motivation, ORHAN, Handicapped International, International Labor Organization, Care International and ADRA are collaborating with VAROD in taking care of the welfare of its beneficiaries (spirituality of communion, co-responsibility and complementarity).
“I have the feeling that we are living and working as a family without any hindrance,” says Sr. Antonitta (28), a Holy Family sister working at VAROD. “We can work together as a team to build a better world. This is the witness we give here,” she continued emphatically.
VAROD transcends all boundaries of religion, caste, and class in its structure and in the service it renders. Among the staff a resounding majority are Hindus who say they are very comfortable working at VAROD with priests and nuns and other Christian colleagues. Hindu and Christian festivals are celebrated well and meaningfully at VAROD. There is real inter-religious atmosphere there. Picnics to worship events of different religions and Religious Week etc. are organized. The elegant, newly-built Meditation Hall at VAROD is very peaceful and conducive for prayer and meditation. On one of the inside walls hangs a large banner which displays what is called in the Christian scriptures as “The Golden Rule” (In everything, do to others as you would have them done to you…) and is found in Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu religious literatures.
Mr. Gangeshwaran (35) is currently the co-ordinator of the CBR program in Vavuniya district. He has been working at VAROD from its very inception. There is a team of nine including him catering to over 450 needy persons. He says, “Of the nine, six of us are Hindus. Among us there is no problem or discrimination. There isn’t any slightest sign of attempts to convert us to Christianity. We learn a lot from the priests here. As a result what we do here is not a work but a service.”
According to Gangeshwaran, among those who receive the services of VAROD about 65-70% of them are Hindus. Northern Sri Lanka is inhabited traditionally by Tamils. So the presence of Muslims and Sinhalese is very rare there. However, it is heartening that there are a couple of Muslims and a Sinhalese who are beneficiaries of CBR work in Vavuniya region.
5. Looking Ahead…
Among the future plans of VAROD is to fully extend its services to the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitvu. These areas have been the worst affected by war. Plans on hand include: livelihood programs, including income generation and vocational training in their full form. “These people have been living in temporary or semi-permanent shelters for last three years. Now it’s time that we think of giving them a decent permanent place to live, and it is a challenge. Nevertheless, we are trying our level best,” says the Director of the center, Fr. Albert J. Arulraja, CMF. VAROD echos the words of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta: “What we do is only a drop in the ocean. But without that drop the ocean would be incomplete.” VAROD’s focus is more on quality and not on numerical statistics. What is done to every single person is done with love, care and quality. That is the fuel that keeps the VAROD project on track. “God provides.” If someone wants to experience whether this is true, VAROD provides an existential avenue.
J.M. Joseph Jeyaseelan CMF