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A Wise Investment: From the Haitian Earthquake to Schools in Sri Lanka

03/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When those already afflicted by centuries of racism and poverty suffer a natural disaster such as the January 12 Haiti earthquake, we in the United States sit up and take notice as the news coverage runs 24/7 in the immediate aftermath.

We have become far more aware of global matters and more creative in our reflexive reactions, as we reach out to send checks, and now even texts.

Witnessing the widespread death and wake of destruction left by the Haitian earthquake may feel almost unbearable, but so far we Americans have done something about it, to the tune of over $22M via cell phone donations alone -- ten dollars at a time.

The brain-boost of giving, as noted a week ago in the New York Times by columnist Nicholas Kristof, will get us just as high as a great meal or shuddering sex.

And sometimes, too, it even works.

Halfway around the world from Haiti, the 20 million residents of Sri Lanka brace themselves for a what's rumored to be a rigged presidential election Tuesday, in a land torn for 26 years by a civil war whose racial tensions between the Singhalese majority and Tamil minority have not eased. Meanwhile, a small ragtag group of students are striving not just to make it through the outbreaks of violence occurring throughout their country this week: They think they can rebuild the tropical island country, ground up, in a way that never did occur after the shattering tsunami of 2005.

They will begin with books.

And being a lifelong lover of books, I get on Skype today with a scholarship program based in Sri Lanka's busy metropolis of Colombo, and I listen.

One of the star students of the program -- called the Buddhi Balika Charitable Trust -- has traveled 111 kilometers by bus, stopped at roadside police checkpoints three times, from her rural village on the southwest coast, Seenigama, to talk to me. Her name is Chamari Thushara Dilhani. She is 23, and she is one of the lucky ones -- she is now a student at Rajarata University, steadily moving toward her goal of earning a degree and procuring a professional job as an accountant.

Twice orphaned, Chamari remembers her father simply walking away one day and never returning; later, her mother died of cancer. "I loved my mother," she tells me. "I didn't know she was suffering." Later, she lost her second set of parents, the aunt and uncle who adopted her, in the Indian Ocean tsunami.

I listen from my laptop in California, where I juggle a family of three teens and a tiny kitchen-table nonprofit that connects kids like Chamari with scholarships and other families with microloans. It has been four years that I have funded Chamari through my support of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls founded by playwright and activist Eve Ensler in 1998. Through V-Day's V-Peace Scholarship fund, I am able to support girls and young women survivors of violence who are seeking education as a way to advance their lives and, ultimately, give back to their communities by working to build peace.

It only costs me U.S.$800 per year to support Chamari. The return on my investment? That feeling you get when you know that you got lucky in life to be born in a relatively comfortable life in Ohio rather than poverty-stricken Haiti; that you cobbled together an education from jobs and fellowships and now you have the power to pass it on.

Without the possibility of schooling, a bright young person like Chamari would have ended up coerced into drugs and prostitution, or at the very least, "...would have been nothing more than a housemaid" earning next to nothing serving others in the village, as she points out. But instead, given a few dollars, Chamari will earn a degree in her chosen field and land a job that will place her solidly in the middle class. She will marry, have a family, buy a home, and contribute to the GDP.

She will have the freedom to believe in what she thinks.

Chamari plans to get out and cast her vote tomorrow, but will not say for which candidate: the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is credited for bringing an end to the 26-year civil war last May; or his contender, Sarath Fonseka, the army general who led forces to succeed in that effort.

She has come a long way, but she recognizes that many other young people deserve a shot at schooling too.

"When Pam met me, she saw me," Chamari tells me. Pam Schmoll is the American anthropologist who conceived the Buddhi Balika scholarship program, in conjunction with Eve Ensler and V-Day in 2005. Initially, they hoped to help with international rescue efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami ... Sort of like our efforts to aid Haiti right now.

Except that, once their scholarships had been established, the founders and their local staff began to see something they'd suspected: The chance to advance changed everything.

"It's such a small amount of money, really," Colombo administrator Vasanthi Harasgama said. What matters far more is that someone cares.

"I don't even want to imagine what Chamari's life would be like without school," she shudders. "Right on her doorstep" are the social problems Chamari has sidestepped -- and not just a tragic fate, either, but one of banal exclusion from the 21st century and the world she now clamors to see.

"I want to travel -- everywhere," Chamari laughs, "maybe first -- your country."
I tell her that I am lucky, that I too attended college on scholarship, and that I only wish every girl and boy could have access to education, in my country and hers and everywhere.

Chamari, an only child to begin with, has lost all of her family except the cousin she now stays with when home on college holidays. She has lived nearly her entire life in a war zone -- the civil war began before she was born and, although officially over last May, has aftershocks that continue today. Her village, wiped out in the storm, did not have electricity or plumbing before or since. She did not know what the word "relax" meant until she became a coed, living in a house on-campus with 19 other girls, listening to music while they cook, watching television and reading books, checking out the cute guys in class and laughing, finally.

Chamari knows that I have funded her school fees, and we spend most of two hours trying to get past the strangeness of that. I keep asking what she believes, insistently, and gradually she talks to me. Like one of my nieces would do.

"Can I ask you one thing?" she queries shyly, in her impressive English.

"Yes, of course," I reply.

"Have you ever known war?"

I tell Chamari about where I was on September 11, we talk about the suffering of that day, and the suffering her people have experienced over 26 years. We also talk about our own South-coast hurricanes, and how we as a country have failed but resilient residents of Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi have rebuilt and continue to rebuild since then.

Ambition to rebuild: that is what drove Chamari to risk political violence to travel so far today, to talk about her life in hopes not just for her own continued funding (which I've already happily pledged to V-Day in support of their V-Peace Scholarship program, which supports survivors of violence like Chamari in their educational pursuits), but that other kids may share such freedom of opportunity.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence reports five murders and 752 acts of violence related to tomorrow's election, yet Chamari proves dauntless in coming to the city anyway. Their office, held in the living room of Vasanthi's house, blacked out for two hours earlier and "my heart was in my mouth," says Vasanthi. "And they say it will get much worse tomorrow, after the election."

Still, she keeps on. Professionally, Vasanthi wishes to extend scholarships to far more than the 47 girls she currently supports. "There is so much talent" among the children of the rural poor, she muses. "Chamari is one of the chosen few--the lucky ones--but so many get left behind." Personally, Vasanthi lives the peace she envisions for Sri Lanka. Herself a Hindu Tamil, she fell in love with and married a Buddhist Singhalese man, their marriage a union of the factions still fighting today. And she works daily side-by-side with her Singhalese assistant, who "is very easy to love," Hiranthi Siriwardene. They both work second jobs to supplement this effort, and they both say they simply cannot stop.

"If all kids had the chance to go to school," Chamari chimes in, "I think there would be no problems or violence in my country. People would be more intelligent; they would earn more money, be safe, and have an enjoyable life."

Having seen what a difference a few school fees can make, V-Day (a US 501c3) hopes to lobby more donations to support young women who have survived violence in pursuing education. And if they get the funds, even in increments of $10 and $20, we will see the sort of impact we have proved elsewhere, when compassion turns to action.

We may not be able to bring back the victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or easily remedy our education system here at home, but we can, one by one, impact the lives of such young idealists as Chamari, who dare to believe that they can build the life they imagine and turn their world into a place of safety and freedom.

To my mind, that's a wise investment.