Some of Sri Lanka's disabled children find a home

NUWARA ELIYA, Sri Lanka — When aid workers found Mahinda, he was living in a drainage ditch in a government-run institution for the mentally ill. Abandoned by his parents, the child, about 5 years old, was malnourished, wore only a dog collar and growled when anyone came close.

"He was like a wild, wild animal," said Chris Stubbs, one of the volunteers who found Mahinda. "He would growl and bite, eat food off the floor."

Mahinda is in his mid-20s today and has grown up at a group home for disabled children run by Mencafep, one of the few organizations working with the disabled here. With therapy, Mahinda has learned to communicate and interact socially. He works as an assistant gardener on the two acres that house the nonprofit’s group home and classrooms.

Stubbs founded The Mentally Handicapped Children and Their Families Project 20 years ago, after he came to Sri Lanka from Britain as a volunteer. In a country where disabilities are often considered karmic punishment for sins committed in a past life, the group’s centers are a sanctuary for children and young adults like Mahinda.

But it's the kids Mencafep can't reach that worry Stubbs. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "We hear lots of stories about kids being locked up or left to die."

disabled man crouches at home for disabled in sri lanka
Mahinda is in his mid-20s and grew up at the Mencafep group home. Through therapy he has learned to speak and interact socially, and he works as an assistant gardener on the two acres surrounding Mencafep's facilities.
(Stephanie Rice/Global Post)

In addition to those shut away in homes or abandoned, Stubbs is concerned about the disabled living inside the dozens of sprawling, barbed-wire camps that house those who were displaced earlier this year when the government ratcheted up its military offensive against the Tamil Tigers.

The government declared victory over the militant separatist group, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in May, ending one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars in history.

Because independent journalists and aid groups were kept out of the conflict zone, no one knows how many died or were badly injured during the final months of the bloodletting. Access to the camps, which the government says are necessary to screen out militants hiding among the civilian population, has been severely restricted.

According to government figures, about 136,000 remain in the camps, down from 300,000 immediately after the war. Basil Rajapaksa, a senior adviser to his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has said the remaining detainees will be released next month.

Unable to reach the displaced Tamils inside the camps, Stubbs recently set up a satellite center in Trincomalee, close to one of the biggest camps. More than six months after the end of the war, he’s disturbed by the lack of information available to aid groups. “We hear many rumors of disappearances, lots of death and disease but no real clarification,” he said.

While Mencafep has struggled to aid the displaced, the organization provides physical therapy, academic classes and vocational training to hundreds throughout central and eastern Sri Lanka.

On a summer morning at Mencafep’s main center in Nuwara Eliya, dozens of kids climbed from the lemon-yellow bus emblazoned with a pink elephant that shuttles in many of the children. Girls in pleated white skirts and tight braids greeted their teachers with hugs and wide grins. Inside the center, three physical therapy instructors coaxed a reluctant toddler and two young boys across blue gym mats. Mahinda went to work near the gardens, gathering pruned foliage into a large burlap sack.

A five-hour drive through winding mountain roads from Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, Nuwara Eliya is one of the poorest districts in this tiny island nation. Most residents work as day laborers on tea estates or farms. The social stigma attached to disabilities, especially mental illness, is so strong that developmentally challenged children or adults are often kept locked inside homes, shut away from the disapproving eyes of neighbors. Those who attend school languish in the back of overcrowded classrooms, ignored by overwhelmed teachers. It's not uncommon for desperate parents to abandon, or even kill, children born with physical deformities or mental problems, Stubbs said.

Ayesha, a shy 28-year-old with long black hair, was rescued as a child from the government mental institution along with Mahinda. She grew up at the Mencafep group home and suffers from microcephaly, a condition characterized by a smaller than normal head and brain.

Ayesha takes cooking and sewing classes at the center and sometimes helps the teachers with the younger children. The best part of her day, she said, is making bread in the kitchen that provides a daily meal for every child.

"I like to cook roti," Ayesha said. "And I like sewing. My favorite thing to sew is pillow cases."

For some, the meal Ayesha helps prepare is the only food they'll eat all day.

Stubbs speaks of Mahinda and Ayesha as if they’re his own, tearing up when he describes the conditions he found them in two decades ago. But for every child Mencafep helps, Stubbs knows there are thousands still being detained in the camps — and many more who have already perished.

In war, “it’s always the elderly and the disabled who die first,” he said. “A lot of times when you finally reach the camps, you don’t see any disabled. They’re all dead in the jungle somewhere.”

Find out more about Mencafep.