For many Sri Lankan families living in poverty, sharing their hope and heartache with Compassion photojournalist Odessa B is a much-appreciated opportunity to have their voices heard.
25 May, 2023
Despite frequent power cuts, skyrocketing inflation, fuel shortages and the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Odessa continues to courageously gather the stories of children in Sri Lanka being released from poverty. In this interview with Compassion Australia, she shares the true reality of poverty in Sri Lanka and the reasons why letter-writing means so much to a sponsored child.
Could you introduce yourself and share where you're from and where you're based at the moment?
Odessa: My name is Odessa and I'm based in Sri Lanka, born and raised here and still live here.
How did you start working with Compassion?
Odessa: I joined Compassion in 2019 just before the pandemic. I actually started off working in sponsor donor services. You print out sponsor letters, you pack them up, send them and then you get another packaged letter from children with their responses which are scanned in. It's just so nice to see that whole connection and the relationship that goes on there. And then this position for photojournalist opened up and I applied.
How did you first hear about Compassion?
Odessa: When I was in school, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. You know, typical leaving school problems. But then I remember there was this lady who came from India to our local community, and she worked with the government to help women who were struggling in India. When I heard her stories of what she was doing, I was so inspired—I then wanted to do social work.
After I left school, I was looking into that line of work and how I could help people. I started working at a research organisation. Before then, I also worked in the travel and tourism industry. When I worked in the research organisation, this person from church told me about Compassion and their job opening. I hadn't heard about Compassion before. But then I just applied and I got in!
How has your life and work has been impacted by COVID-19?
Odessa: Okay, so we've just lost electricity here because of the frequent power cuts in Sri Lanka, but I have batteries. I think I'll be OK.
When COVID-19 started, Sri Lanka had curfews in the night and we could leave during the daytime. I think for me personally, life was really impacted when everything was closed. Our lockdown was a really strict lockdown. In the beginning, even essential services weren’t open.
So I remember we had two weeks of lockdown and then it was announced that for one day, they're going to open up the shops for everyone to just go buy what you need. You can imagine the lines and the crowds because it was just one day where you can go and get what you need. I remember our family made a plan: “Okay, you go here, you go here.” Strategising!
It was really tough even for us living in the city to get food and to go out. You just couldn't. But personally, I'm so grateful. I just see how God has provided for our family. I still have my job. I still am able to study. I still have everything that I need. So I'm just so grateful.
I think in 2020 and 2021, I barely travelled. I wasn't able to travel. It was definitely a learning thing for everyone in our team because we couldn't do what we were supposed to do. So I was on the phone, calling and coordinating with centres, trying to get pictures, trying to get stories and pictures coming in but with varying quality. It was an interesting experience.
But even during that time, we were still able to send out stories. And I think that was really positive and very encouraging. And then we realised how helpful centre staff are. Some of them go out of their way to get you the right picture, even if you asked for it 100 times. I mean, even building a relationship over the phone, you just like realise that they are going through the same thing over there with COVID-19 but they still get passes to go cover stories.
I think our whole team just learned how to be patient. You take a step back. You can't control everything. Sometimes you just have to let it go.
So I think it was a lot of learning for sure. The good stuff is there.
What is the journey of capturing a story for Compassion? How does it begin?
Odessa: Before we even do a visit, there is a lot of work that goes in to planning for the story. We prepare for like six months. Then, looking at the topics that we get, I generally start with sending out emails to our partnership facilitators to find out if they have any stories. Also, in our own staff meetings, people share stories. So I get those story seeds and then follow up on them.
So preparing—it means lots of phone calls. Once I get an idea of a centre that has what I'm looking for, I'll call the centre, do all that planning then go back to our Business Support and arrange accommodation, transport, approvals and all that administrative work before. After I have gotten everything done, I would think about the topic and make a short list of what kind of pictures I'm looking for.
I plan my interview questions, get consent forms and then I travel. And I think that's the most fun! Sri Lanka is a really small island. We don't take flights and you can just drive everywhere. If you can’t go in a vehicle, you go by foot climbing mountains and with camera bags. When everyone sees me, they see me as this tiny person wearing a huge camera bag! On my most recent visit, we had really bad mud. When it rains, it gets really muddy and you can't drive because the tyres won’t go up. So we had to put on all our stuff and get on bikes and go.
Once you go there, you meet with the staff, the family, do the interviews, get consent to do the photoshoot. You get all the information, verify facts, ask them everything. After that, we do the post-production. I sort through the pictures, transcribe all the interviews. I write the story and select pictures.
You must sometimes find yourself connecting with children, families and staff about personal or sensitive topics. How do you build relationships and safe spaces for families to share in this way? What works well and what can be challenging?
Odessa: I think before the pandemic, I learned from my team that I needed to plan a visit of at least three days. A minimum of three days for one story. I think that really works because you go to a centre on the first day and you don't touch your camera, you don't touch your notebook. You keep everything down and just get to know the family. I just spend time with them and play with the kids. Ask them what they like to do.
The first day is just building relationship and just talking. I think that really helps because the next day when you go to the to the centre again, they know you. They know you so then they're more like natural and more comfortable with you—even the kids. Then you can take a camera and get to speak with them, so that really helps. And you have three days so it’s okay if you miss something on the first day.
But after COVID-19, this has been a challenge because I have reduced my visits to just one day which is really hard. You just have limited time to get everything done. It’s constantly thinking about what needs to happen because you only have one day. You have got to build relationships in just a limited number of hours.
But I think that's where the centre staff really are important because they know the families already. So once they're with you, they make the family more comfortable as well and it's easier.
I think another challenge is when you're in a person's house and you're interviewing them and neighbours are watching. It’s actually really hard because sometimes they get intimidated. They share something about their life which is not easy. And I think that is always a challenge because you can't tell the neighbours to leave. You could maybe go back to the centre and do an interview in a quiet place. I think it's just Sri Lanka, you know? If you walk around and you're new, everyone's just staring, everyone's interested in everyone else.
The thing about Sri Lankans is that, especially with our families, if they know you're from Compassion, they generally want to share. Even mothers that I've met, they just need a place where they can share or just talk. These mothers, they just need a place to release their family stress and their struggles. And this is what the staff listen to, so that they can feel comfortable in doing that. They've already shared their stories with the staff so when I visit, they are comfortable with them. Once they get comfortable, they just love sharing.
What do you wish that supporters in Australia knew about Compassion and poverty in Sri Lanka?
Odessa: In Sri Lanka right now, we are going through an economic crisis of inflation rates. The cost of living is rising every week. You hear about prices of something going up and they're having so many shortages. There's no fuel. There is no electricity sometimes and even some of the partners have had milk powder issues and shortages of other essential stuff. And I think even now, we don't have gas.
Even things like the price of a cup of tea now has gone so high. I remember it used to be around 10 rupees, now it's a lot more. It's really going high, even a packet of rice. I don't think you can find one for 100 rupees anymore. It's expensive now.
I'm living in the city. I'm earning. I have a steady job and yet even our family sometimes find it hard, like with our electricity bills. Imagine a family who just relies on their everyday income. For them it's just impossible to survive. I think the situation in Sri Lanka is actually really bad.
Because the people who are affected the most are the people who we are serving. They're the ones who need help the most. I wonder how they survive because they earn that daily income and that is just what they earn on an everyday basis, right? So if you miss one day of work, you don't get money that day or you don't get money that week.
Now there are also no jobs in Sri Lanka. We have our tea plantation states which is the central province, then we have agriculture as well which is more in the rural areas. In the eastern province, where people are involved in agriculture, you get paid based on your kilograms of tea collected. But what they get paid is only about 1,500 Sri Lankan rupees. And honestly, now with 1,000 rupees a day you cannot survive. Three meals a day? Impossible. Because everything is just so expensive. To earn a daily wage of 1,000 LKR (4.90 USD), plantation workers have to collect a minimum of 18 kilograms of tea leaves. They're working, they're doing what they can, but even what they get is just not enough for one person.
Poverty isn't just economic, but it's the lack of opportunities, the lack of education that people have. And the sad part is, it's out of their control and they're doing what they can, but sometimes, you just can't control it.
But in saying that, Compassion is really helping by giving the food packages because that's the most precious thing to families now. And I think even by providing hygiene kits, with masks and stuff.
But Compassion’s work in Sri Lanka is expanding. If you know like a little bit about the past of Sri Lanka, we had a civil war for over 20 years, I think close to 30 years. And it was mainly in the north of Sri Lanka. So I think that area people are just struggling with post-war things. Kids are addicted to drugs there. Many people were affected by the war mentally and even physically. People are still missing families. You know, there are still families just run by either the father or the mother. So children have no protection, some are even just left with their grandparents, stuff like that. No education or food, no opportunities as well.
So the North is still struggling and I think we are expanding Compassion’s work in that area. Even during the pandemic, we were able to open partners in the north. We've got new kids registered. And I think our work there is very, very important because it's a very tough situation. There is lots of violence. And kids are the most vulnerable there. If parents are addicted to drugs and don't care about the kids, the kids also going to follow that as they are used to seeing it. So I think our work there is very important. Our office is just so happy that we've moved up to the north and we're able to start work there.
In your experience visiting child development centres and meeting sponsored children and their families, what impact does sponsorship have?
Odessa: The impact of sponsorship is just beautiful. When we visit families, the question that we always ask is “how is your life better now?” or “what have you got through this?” or “what do you see?”
I ask parents “what do you hope for your children?” and they always say “I want them to study. I want them to get good jobs and not live like how we lived.”
That is not usually the mindset in Sri Lanka. If you're in poverty, you do what your parents do. But now you can see that the mindset has changed where the parents want their children to study, they want them to get a good education, get a good job.
I asked these families if they receive help from anywhere else and they say no. They feel like no one sees them. No one understands their needs. No one cares about even just giving them a packet of rice. And when Compassion steps in, when sponsorship steps in and they experience that feeling of ‘hey, there's people who care about me’, something in them changes.
They know that they can trust these people. In many thank you videos, I've heard mothers say, "just to think that from miles away, there's a person there who is thinking of us, sending things for us.” For families, that is just so impactful for them. They have a place that they can safely run to play with their friends. Parents know that their kids are safe.
What would you say to an Australian supporter who is hesitant about starting a sponsorship with Compassion?
Odessa: So, I just have a question. What are the reasons that people are hesitant to sponsor?
I love that Compassion is so transparent. Even in your writing, even in your heart. In feeling that you want to do justice to the story of a family living in Sri Lanka when you write, I love that about Compassion.
It's hard when sponsors can't come and see how bad poverty is and see what it's like. What families are going through. But I think as children of God, we are called to help when we see people in need. I think God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing.
I visit families here and I see gifts and letters that they've got from their sponsors. It's something different for them and it's something new that they love. It means so much to them.
Sometimes you might think it's just a piece of paper with words and that it doesn't mean that much, but for these kids, it means the world to them. Just knowing that they have someone who cares about them from hundreds of miles away. That's something that's so beautiful.
I know it's hard to give to something you can't see. Sometimes it's not easy, but once you take that first step and just give, you see the impact of your contribution. Even if it's just a few rupees, a few dollars, it means so much to them.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Odessa: I think just one thing that I realised from visiting families is that they just want to give you something right before you leave. When you go, you have to take something. And some families give me plants to take back from their garden. They don't have much, but I always admire that they still want to give out of what they have. I have got so much stuff from their home gardens and their produce or harvest. I go back home with extra bags and my mum has to deal with that!
Something that I love seeing is that there's always joy on those kids faces. They can live in the tiniest house but they will love it and they like playing in it. Recently, I wrote a story on flooding. This kid's house was literally made of leaves and concrete so it's very fragile and it got flooded. And this kid told me, "Oh, I love diving like a swimming pool in my house,” and he's just so innocent. They find joy in everything.
Words and photography by Odessa B. Interview by Rachel Howlett.
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