Fridsro (a Swedish term meaning “a place of peace”) is an organization in Sri Lanka caring for those disenfranchised by poverty, war and disaster, especially those with disabilities. We spoke with Lorena Smith, the country representative for Fridsro and the daughter of founder Anna Greta Perera, about their work in this often overlooked nation.
What is unique about working in Sri Lanka?
It is a little frustrating since Sri Lanka is a very small country. There’s a lot of needs. We tend to get overlooked by organizations that work in India, or Indonesia, or Africa or wherever. Sri Lanka had really bad floods in the last few months—over a million people are homeless. It’s really hard because Sri Lanka is not of particular economic importance in the world and doesn’t have very strong ties to the U.S. It gets a little frustrating to try and raise money from that perspective.
What are some of Fridsro’s ongoing projects?
We have the orphanage, which is kind of our main campus. [It is] the way we started, so that remains the main focus for us. We have 100 children now. We’re kind of moving away from the traditional orphanage situation because obviously for the children it is better to be with their family. What we started in conjunction with the Swedish International Development Agency (through our partner PMU, Swedish Pentecostal Aid Agency) is called the Child Friendly Community Project. What we do is we identify families together with the social services who are in danger of having their children institutionalized, and then we work with the families one on one to see what they need. Usually it’s a matter of extreme poverty, so we help them become self-sufficient, find jobs, get businesses, get the medical help they need so that they are able to keep their children. So we have about 100 children residents in the orphanage and about 500 now in the Child Friendly Community Project that we help while they stay with their families. We help the families as a whole, working with the education and health departments and so on.
How did working with the disabled become your primary focus?
About 15 years ago, my mom was still alive, and we had two disabled children in the orphanage at that point that had been abandoned by their family. When we were looking into the community, the reason that one of the kids was abandoned was not because their parents were poor or because they didn’t love the child, but they were just not able to care for him because they didn’t know what to do. And Sri Lanka is also a primarily a Buddhist country, so they believe in Karma and think, “Oh, its meant to be if they’re born that way.” They have this fatalistic attitude about it, where there’s really nothing you can do. So we kind of started there where we talked about it and thought, “What can we do?” It developed into this Community Based Rehabilitation Program, where we send out volunteers into the villages and then form village communities. [We do] more than just bring physical help to the people and wheelchairs and so on, and help them get into school, help them with their health needs. A big part of the project is also changing the mindsets of society and the communities that they work in, that they will be seen as equal citizens in Sri Lanka with the rights that they have. It began with this one little boy, and he’s still with us in the home. It started with the idea that they don’t have to be separated from their families, and that the family can be given tools and understanding and education, from the families to the communities. All of our work is based on that bottom-up thing, rather than top-down. We try not to go into places and tell people what to do, but start a dialogue with the community to see what their needs are and how we can meet them.
In the wake of the floods, what are some new plans or projects for Fridsro?
A part of Fridsro is called the Fridsro disaster relief team. We kind of put this together when the tsunami happened, but we kept in touch with all the people that volunteered with us during that time and have periodic updates. So the day after the worst flooding was descending, they went out. We’ve been out, I think, three or four times now. They reach the parts of the country by boat and try to bring relief supplies to the people. Right now we’re bringing food and water and clothing. As the water goes back a little bit, we’re going to put in more of a long-term relief operation, as far as the need to rebuild their homes, and clean up the rice fields and try to help them rebuild their lives again.
Can you tell me more about your partnership with Wine to Water (a nonprofit that raises funds through wine-tasting events to bring clean water to impoverished areas)?
When we started the war rebuilding and we were looking at what we needed, most of the people in the north and the east needed help rebuilding their houses, but they urgently were in need of water. Their wells were destroyed, they didn’t have water, their fields had been shallow for 36 years. They were coming back from the refugee camps, needing to rebuild all that. Just in looking to some organizations that were able to help, we got in touch with Wine to Water. The first well is put in right now and they have a commitment to 15 or 16 other wells, depending on what the needs are right then when we’re able to go into that area.
What role does faith play in the work of Sri Lanka, especially in a Buddhist nation?
Faith and work, reaching out to people, have to go hand in hand. You can’t walk up to people and say, “God bless you,” and leave them there cold and tired. We’re called to be the hands of God and that’s why we believe we should do it.