Until December 26, Mevan Jayawardena, 25, was an IT analyst at a telecom company. Now he's building houses for tsunami victims in his native Sri Lanka. Here, he describes his new challenge.
I had come to Sri Lanka for my sister's wedding when the tsunami struck. Shortly after, a Catholic priest in Kalamulla on Sri Lanka's west coast phoned, seeking assistance. Two hundred and eighty-six families from a nearby lagoon were crammed into his church's school buildings. Their homes, their fishing canoes, and their poultry farms had vanished with the water.
The priest had raised funds to buy nearby land and wanted the charity founded by my parents, the Association for Lighting a Candle (AFLAC), to build 20 new homes on the property. Two days later, we toured the proposed land. Even though the government promised replacement housing for tsunami victims, the priest knew we had the wherewithal to act faster.
All this was a long way from my job in Australia, but I felt deeply shaken by the destruction and loss in my country. Two days after the disaster, I had searched a southern beach in vain for the body of my sister's groomsman, a Harvard-trained World Bank economist. The tsunami didn't discriminate. From that point on, I couldn't imagine returning to Melbourne, at least not right away.
Early on, I drove to the south and east of Sri Lanka to survey the damage and to meet with local officials to discuss possible relief projects. By design, those meetings cut across all lines. I found myself conferring with members of Parliament from the ruling and opposition parties, a local women's development group, international aid agencies, a provincial minister's aide, Catholic and Buddhist priests, a regional judge, an Air Force commander, members of the German embassy, and ethnic Tamil representatives on the battered east coast.
A common thread in every meeting has been building trust fast. With little time to socialize, an unstated part of beginning partnerships has become gauging our counterparts' willingness to get things done.
Along the way, I've envied international relief groups driving around in their Jeeps, pouring manpower and resources into Sri Lanka. But I've also seen that being involved at the local, beneficiary level has enhanced our effectiveness. We can speak and prepare documents in the local languages — Sinhala and Tamil. And we have extensive contacts to help overcome inevitable obstacles that Sri Lankan intransigence poses.
I've thrived when juggling multiple contacts and projects. On one recent day, I drove north to a meeting at the Urban Development Authority (UDA), the national body charged with building 85,000 homes. Then I drove south to meet an Air Force team bulldozing the Kalamulla land. Nearby, I met with eight fishermen to finalize funding to repair their nets. (Each net allows 20 men to work, sustains 160 family members, and provides income for many fish retailers.) That night, I responded to a flood of emails.
We face many hurdles. Sometimes our work feels like driving on a freeway. When we approach a slow truck, we switch lanes to another project until that lane clears. Then we go along until that lane backs up, and switch again.
But sometimes, when all lanes seem clogged, we've had breakthroughs. When a Kalamulla planning board seemed indecisive, a contact arranged a meeting with a director at the UDA. The director listened to our plan and said the UDA would mandate local approvals for Kalamulla. Then he rolled out blueprints for other UDA projects that he suggested AFLAC might help codevelop.
This was a big deal. Land and building approvals are scarce in Sri Lanka. For weeks, I'd run around the country seeking both. Now we could focus on funding housing on preinspected, presurveyed, preapproved government land, with the UDA running interference.
For all our passion to help in Sri Lanka, we see plenty of indifference. But this experience has left me imagining a career in relief work. Before the tsunami, I was set on applying to U.S. MBA programs. I still am — but now I expect my focus in business will be on trying to help people.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.