Christian and Muslim agencies extend local partnership

Amjad Saleem, country director of the Islamic development and relief agency Muslim Aid, walked into the weekly meeting of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) on 4 August 2006 in Colombo looking for urgent help. He walked out with a partnership that has gone beyond national borders in less than two years.

Several days earlier, heavy fighting had broken out between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Muttur town, Trincomalee District in eastern Sri Lanka. It forced more than 50,000 people to flee the coastal town 260km northeast of the capital, Colombo.

"We had a presence in Muttur town and we knew what was going on," Saleem told IRIN. "I told the CHA meeting we needed help to deal with the huge emergency."

Help came Saleem's way when his counterpart from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in Sri Lanka made an immediate pledge to help.

Both agencies had begun working independently in Sri Lanka after the December 2004 tsunami until UMCOR responded to the urgent request by Muslim Aid.


Photo: UMCOR
Two years after Muslim Aid and UMCOR joined forces in relief activities in Sri Lanka, their leaders shake hands following the signing of a historic partnership agreement in London to collaborate in other international relief ventures

New partnership

They began working together first in Kantale, a town 40km west of Muttur, where most of the tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) had congregated. They provided first aid, medicine, safe drinking water and transported the sick to hospitals.

Thereafter, the two organisations collaborated with resources and personnel to help those returning to their damaged homes. Saleem told IRIN that while his organisation put up warehouses and oversaw the distribution of relief, UMCOR procured the relief items for the IDPs.

"UMCOR is the relief arm of the US-based United Methodist Church and provided significant financial and relief assistance," Saleem told IRIN. "Muslim Aid, on the other hand, had a lot of local staffers, a good local network and access to government officials, so we could make working on the ground smoother."

Overcoming tensions

Saleem told IRIN that working together significantly increased relief capabilities and also reduced religious and racial tensions on the ground that had prevented work in some areas.

The partnership allowed the two relief agencies to work in Seruvila, a predominantly Sinhala village south of Muttur, which had been hostile towards foreign relief agencies.

''Since we were Muslim and Christian agencies working together, we could convince the Buddhist religious leaders that there was no hidden agenda and to let us in to help the villagers.''

"The village had not received the attention it deserved and did not trust foreign aid agencies," Saleem said. "But since we were Muslim and Christian agencies working together, we could convince the Buddhist religious leaders that there was no hidden agenda and to let us in to help the villagers."

News of the Sri Lankan partnership soon spread and on 26 June 2007, the organisations entered into an official international agreement in London that facilitated relief worth US$23 million for regions affected by poverty, conflict and war, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Saleem believes their partnership worked because it was born out of necessity. "The situation on the ground [in Muttur] demanded that agencies work together," he said. "It was not that there was a decision to work in partnership and we searched out locations. The first experience itself taught invaluable lessons on how to work together."

Two years after they began their partnership in a coastal town beset by a sudden surge of violence, the two organisations are in discussions to widen their remit to work in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories with local partners there, Saleem said.

ap/bj/mw