Mission to Seafarers steering in choppy seas
By N. Dilshath Banu
Men and women who sail the high seas to make a living, leave behind families for long periods of time and have only the blue ocean around them for company.

"Mission to Seafarers therefore, is a home away from home for them," Wing Commander Noel Fernando, the President of the Mission to Seafarers, Colombo told a news conference recently, adding that this is where they belong, from the captain right down the line.

Earlier known as Mission to Seamen, it became Mission to Seafarers, when women joined the journeys on the sea. Headquartered in London, any country that has a seaport boasts of a Mission to Seafarers.

The objectives of this organization are to respect and uphold the values, faiths and cultural norms of seafarers and their families, publicise the contributions made by this vital group and serve the needs of seafarers.

In the olden days, seafarers would step into the mission in Colombo, enjoy a glass of beer and purchase simple requirements such as powder and soap. Two IDD phones at the mission helped seafarers stay in touch with their families. "Unlike today, when people are using mobile phones, those days the seafarers had to come to our mission to contact their families. It was also a source of income for us in yesteryears," said Wing Commander Fernando.

"Seafarers often find themselves uncertain about what to do or where to go when they are in trouble. Part of our mission consists of lending a compassionate ear to them. We handle a broad range of situations by mobilising the support of volunteer organizations and professionals specializing in maritime affairs. They help solve problems such as repatriation, recovering backwages, improving working conditions and provide support during crises such as when a seafarer goes missing from his ship or while travelling from home to the port," explains Wing Commander Fernando.

Today, the Mission to Seafarers in Sri Lanka has undergone many changes. Where once the organization was by a public road, now the police have occupied the area for security reasons.

"It has become a fortress. No one would want to walk in-between police guards wielding guns. As a result, our funds have dropped because fewer seafarers visit us. Those days more than 1,000 dropped in every month but now even fewer than 50 do," he said, adding, "We don't depend on our headquarters in London. So it's hard for us to survive."

To help the mission come out of a difficult situation, Clarence Welikala has been appointed the new CEO. Mr. Welikala has served in various organizations including Unilever (Ceylon) Ltd., looking into security aspects. He was a volunteer officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Ceylon Light Infantry from 1957-65.

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