A hand-delivered birthday gift to Sri Lanka

A hand-delivered birthday gift to Sri Lanka

By Dilhara Sivalingam, World Vision supporter

I left my motherland as a child almost 35 years ago. In 2018, I returned to meet another little girl building her life in a fishing village.

1984 will always be remembered for BandAid – footage of Ethiopian famine dominated TV. My loyalty to World Vision began not long after. Remembering a country that I had left behind where people begged, and starvation was synonymous with living, I registered to participate in my first World Vision 40 Hour Famine. I raised $1,000 to buy bags of rice and clean water. In 1989, I saved 50 percent of the money from my casual job and sponsored my first World Vision child. Brenda was three years old and was from Mexico. I was 16. I sponsored Brenda until I was 30.

Ten years later, on my 40th birthday, I took the day off work and had organised a full day of self-indulgence which started by penning a note of thanks to my parents, followed by gifting myself something new. As I started to write to appa (dad), I found myself logging into the World Vision site and searching through child profiles. During this period, I had read a book called Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Naomi Munaweera. The book brought to the surface some nostalgia and pride for my motherland. I don’t have children so perhaps a little maternal maturity also surfaced on the 5th of March 2015. My heart wanted children from Sri Lanka. I needed to reconnect with my roots.

After many faces flashed before me I chose one little boy and one little girl.  My wallet, however, told me I could only afford one child. I picked Yulaksi.  I felt connected to her. (In 2018, I learned that a colleague had sponsored the little boy I couldn’t afford.)

I had sponsored Yulaksi for three years when, in June 2018, I decided to journey to meet her.

Meeting Yulaksi for the first time

With the World Vision team

In September 2018, at the end of a 15-hour flight followed by an eight-hour/165 kilometres drive across Sri Lanka, I turned left off the main road onto a dirt track to meet my sponsored child.  As I drove past salt water and weather-beaten brown faces in a local fishing village, I recall being filled with a cocktail of adrenalin, anticipation, excitement and apprehension. What if she is living in a slum with open sewers? What if she didn’t like me? Would she understand my broken Tamil with an Australian accent?

My butterflies eased somewhat when I saw the World Vision van. I was welcomed with hugs and handshakes by the World Vision team and was fed tastes of my childhood – mango juice cordial, Marie biscuits and Kraft cheese. I was home.

I heard a presentation on the program that World Vision had been undertaking for five years, to rebuild homes, families and a community devastated by war, famine, tsunami and poverty. Then, with hand-picked World Vision volunteer field staff, we spent two hours unpacking 100kg of books, toys and clothing donated by family and friends in Australia and created gift hampers for individuals in Yulaksi’s community. I had a rag doll for Yulaksi to mark her fifth birthday.

A tiny, dark-eyed Yulaksi welcomed me with a garland and a huge smile. She held my hand and we played. I don’t have children and was taken aback by the knowing look in her eyes and the way that she held my hand. She called me “Chitti” (aunty). I called her “cutti” (tiny). My dream had come true.

I embarked on this journey needing to see for myself how my money was being spent by World Vision. Where was it going and was it helping Yulaksi, or was it simply making World Vision richer? With the help of Clare from World Vision I made it to Sri Lanka and am amazed by what I saw.

Yulakis’s home was fitted with a water tank, complete with irrigation and glistening clean running water. No more would she accompany her elders to collect water from the well in 40 degree heat.  She was wearing pretty-pink slippers to match her favourite pink dress. The seeds provided through World Vision grew abundantly in the garden. Tomatoes aubergine, beans… The chickens, also provided through World Vision, croaked happily in their pen.  I was thrilled and relieved.

Yulaksi’s home was beautiful. She was incredibly proud of her front gate. A tantalising banquet was cooked for me. I climbed a mango tree for the first time since I was six. In that instant, I missed my grandfather and was homesick for my parrot and my own mango tree – all that I left behind at my humble home in 1984.

A unique nostalgia


I believe I had a unique experience compared to most others who visit their sponsored child. My heart was connected by culture and heritage and a want for something greater than myself. I believe Yulaksi felt it. Through this experience I am reminded of the day my family were forcibly removed from our home in Colombo in 1983 because of our heritage.

We made the Colombo international airport hangar home. My mother, grandmother and we children slept in a Morris Minor while my father and grandfather took shifts standing guard. My siblings and I were removed from the airport and later safe secured at the home of an unknown family. My brother was five.

I am reminded of how, every time the soldiers came knocking to look for “Tamils”, my brother and I would be hidden under a double bed with a cardboard box over our heads. I cuddled my bother and kept him silent. I was eight.

My experiences do not define me. Giving back through child sponsorship has defined me. I know who I am and most importantly, I know who I chose to be.

The statistics from the work World Vision has done in this part of Sri Lanka tells the story. The program supports 23,686 people (7,144 families) across 29 villages, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Starvation and poverty does not discriminate. Since 2012, more than 650 adults have been small business trained and 43 new start-up businesses have emerged. A total of 558 families grow their own produce; 110 families’ rear cattle and 14 families have chickens.

The produce is shared within the community. There are 233 children in a health and dental program, 256 homes now have toilets and there are three safe adult-supervised parks for children. Education has reached an extra 1100 children and school attendance has increased by more than 20% in five years. I am most of all proud that sponsors such as myself helped to create three university graduates, in a village where literacy once barely existsed. 

It is an example of World Vision’s ethos in action: “Our vision for every child, life in all its fullness. Our prayer for every heart, the will to make it so…”


Dilhara Sivalingam is a World Vision supporter, born in Sri Lanka to Tamil parents. Leaving Sri Lanka after being victim to civil war, she is passionate about the arts and humanitarian work. She now lives in Brisbane. Here is her story of sponsoring a child.

Share this story