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It’s Backpacks and Playgrounds As Group Helps Tsunami Victims

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One Jewish organization is looking to the children as it works to help those affected by the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Together with the U.S. Agency for International Development and a Sri Lankan group known as Sarvodaya, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is working to rebuild and upgrade 40 children’s parks and playgrounds that were destroyed by the Dec. 26 tsunami. The tsunami killed more than 225,000 people across the Indian Ocean region, including more than 30,000 in Sri Lanka alone.

The project is part of the JDC’s effort to provide both immediate aid and long-term help in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the region.

The program is “on the border between rebuilding and development,” Eliot Goldstein, 32, told JTA by telephone from Sri Lanka.

With his wife, Rebecca Bardach, also 32, Goldstein is launching the JDC’s efforts in Sri Lanka. The couple will work on that phase of the project through early July.

The JDC already has brought in experts from the United States and Israel to help design safe and creative play spaces for Sri Lankan children.

About $500,000 from the more than $18 million the group collected for tsunami relief — money that came from individual donors, foundations and Jewish federations — is likely to be pledged soon to the playground project, JDC officials said.

The federations involved pitched in beyond what they normally give to the JDC.

The project is not without controversy, however: It’s running up against laws passed after the tsunami that seek to prevent building near the water. Those laws are an attempt to prevent some of the devastation that occurred when the tsunami ripped through homes and schools that were too close to the Indian Ocean.

But Goldstein said the comments he heard about the program from Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaske, last week were positive. Rajapaske said the law was targeted at schools and homes, not at outdoor areas such as playgrounds, Goldstein said.

The JDC also is working to help victims of the tsunami in Indonesia, India and Thailand.

In Sri Lanka, where the JDC is working in southern and eastern coastal areas, it has given backpacks full of staples — soap, shampoo and school uniforms — to 2,000 kids in 20 villages.

The group also is rebuilding a primary school in the town of Ahangama and helping to fund a Sarvodaya program that helps children develop strategies to cope with the trauma of the disaster.

“We want to leave a lasting legacy,” JDC spokesman Joshua Berkman said. “We want communities to know that the Jewish people were here in their time of need.”

As initial relief efforts give way to longer-term development, the JDC also is working to help the large community of fishermen and others whose livelihoods were wiped out rebuild their lives.

Difficult questions must be faced there as well.

For example, “When we rebuild a printing school, are we going to upgrade it for desktop publishing?” Goldstein asked.

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