Rising to the occasion after the quake
Sasha Ekanayake was asleep in Istanbul – the city of minarets – when the security focal points of Save the Children (of which he is Country Director in Turkiye) rang through with news of the massive earthquake that had brought hulking buildings in parts of Turkiye down like sawdust.
The time was 5.45 a.m. and the first concern was to make sure the 35 team members of Save the Children in the affected areas were safe. The first 48 hours were spent tracing members- especially in the Hatay Province where the old biblical hillside landscapes with ancient sun drenched monasteries and olive groves were all an infernal rubble.
After the members were all safely accounted for, the hard work was to begin; that of providing for the children and families in affected areas.
Spearheading their effort was Sasha. Born in Medagamuwa, in Gampaha, and having schooled at Bandaranaike Vidyalaya, Gampaha and Ananda College, Colombo, he at the time had his sights on a profitable career, preferably in the corporate sector.
Talking to the Sunday Times from Istanbul, the 46-year-old Sri Lankan says his damascene moment came when in 2004 ‘in his dream job’ as an assistant brand manager at a leading conglomerate, he realised his ‘sole existence’ was to ‘sell more’ to people who couldn’t really afford things – despite having benefited from free education himself.
This personal dilemma coincided with the Boxing Day Tsunami and Sasha found himself captured by the beach-side and camp work of the Red Cross and other organisations in that time of crisis. He recognised his calling.
‘It wasn’t just the ‘I want to help people’ but ‘I have a specific skill and knowledge – can I use it to make things better and do something positive to myself and the community?’ ’
Under Pakiasothy Saravanamutu at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, he was to learn about the ‘NGO world’ and the ‘policy world’ and this was followed by a string of positions in Handicap International, Action Against Hunger, and Save the Children including working at the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, at the Uganda-Congo border ministering to war and landmine victims, in drought- struck Somalia and Ebola-infected Sierra Leone. He has been Country Director in Turkiye since 2019.
The past so many weeks in Turkiye, he says, have been a stressful whirlwind. ‘Basic assistance’ for children and families meant cooking and providing food, getting blankets and water for them.
‘More than 20 million people’ Sasha notes, have been affected: eleven provinces, 45,000 dead, 110,000 injured, many not accounted for.
The human tragedy has hit Sasha hard personally as well.
“It was shattering to see nothing standing of the towns we used to walk around, have coffee and know people.”
It was touching he says to see the way his colleagues rallied. “Most of them or their families and friends were affected. Even with seven, eight, ten members of their families killed or injured they were coming to office, and preparing food, visiting and responding to serve the people on the ground.”
A relief worker’s lot is often harder than any regular office job. They work 13 to 14 hours a day upto seven days a week- Sasha himself is on call 24/7. On distribution rounds they provide not only basic amenities but also winter clothes, hygiene kits, shampoo, soaps, towels and even washing machines for communities.
“(The team’s work) was a testament to human courage during difficult times,” says Sasha.
It is also a testament he adds, to the often mistrusted efforts of ‘the NGO’.
“We have a mixed history of NGOs in Sri Lanka – there are positive and negative perceptions. But as a sector there is a lot of good being done there though at the same time there may be ‘anecdotal instances’ for people using NGOs for different motives.
“But in totality a lot of people in this sector try to do their best in coordination with host governments, the ministries, etc. The perception of NGOs because of our history of war and all that is very complicated.
“I think 95 percent of people in the sector don’t have any ulterior motives other than pure humanitarian ones.”
Sasha lives in Istanbul with his Italian wife and their two dogs.
Searching for an ideal partner? Find your soul mate on Hitad.lk, Sri Lanka's favourite marriage proposals page. With Hitad.lk matrimonial advertisements you have access to thousands of ads from potential suitors who are looking for someone just like you.