The Pull of Asia – Day 4

Posted on May 7, 2014


Since returning from Uganda in 2010 my time in Africa has had a profound effect on how I want to live my life. I have surprised even myself with my insatiable appetite for globe-trotting adventure on a budget. And today the desire just keeps grows with every foreign trip. Today I met a remarkable woman who also re-evaluated her priorities in exchange for something more worth while.

Heidi Bogaerts, is a Belgian now living in Sri Lanka and married to a local man called Upul. The couple run the budget hotel in Habarana where I am staying. She spent years working in her family business in Belgium before packing it in to become a Montessori teacher. In 2002 she enrolled in a teacher training course for a year and a half in Minneapolis before returning home.

Heidi was with her family when the 2004 Tsunami hit on Boxing Day. She told me, “We were all watching television when the news came on.

“All I could think about was if something like that happened here (Europe) I would want to help, especially when there are children involved. But I just didn’t know how to help at first. Three weeks later I got a call from my friends in Minneapolis and they told me that they were organising themselves and doing charity work to raise money to go over to help.

“I was very interested and said, ‘how can I help you?’ In the end around 20 people including doctors, nurses went over, all from Minneapolis. The leader of the group was Tamil. He had a connection there because he had lost people.”

By March 2005 Heidi had quit her job, packed up her life and flown over to work in Panadura. There she helped to rebuild houses. But her main skill set – working with children – was about to be tested in her toughest challenge yet.

“I was responsible for bring the children back to the beach. AS a etacher I had to get them to confront what had happened and I decided to do this through the use of games.

“It was important to use play but without competition. In Sri Lanka the education system puts a lot of pressure on children to succeed. It was very important that the games were used to bring the children together not to divide them. But first they had to be comfortable with me. I started by taking their mothers to the beach and the children would watch us from a great distance.”

Heidi would play with the kids in the village until they got to know her, trust her and feel safe around her. She told me the trauma they suffered was so extreme it was clear they had bottled up their emotions.

“I remember the first day that I took a few of the little ones to the beach, they were squeezing my hand. They had absolutely no expression on their faces – no fear, no happiness, nothing. I had to keep myself very calm for their sake.

“The next few trips I brought more children and this time a ball as a distraction. It took around four to five months working like this for it to have some effect.”

Heidi stayed for six months before returning back to Belgium. She said, “I felt terribly homesick for this country when I got back. I felt horrible. O was fed up with people’s attitude, with the lack of interest from my family about what I had seen and experienced,” she said.

The desire to be somewhere where she could put something back was too great to ignore. And just eight months later she was back in Sri Lanka and has not looked back since.

Posted in: Asia