Tsunami Junction_ Sri Lanka by chenboying

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									Tsunami Junction, Sri Lanka By Laurie Weed

On December 26, 2004, I was in Khajuraho, smack in the middle of India and a six-month backpacking trip. Fortunately for me, my only contact with one of the deadliest natural disasters in history was through the TV. For weeks, confusion and tsunami-hysteria gripped South Asia. It was a strange time to be traveling in this part of the world, even though I was far away from the affected areas. Meanwhile, a friend of mine, journalist and travel writer Jeff Greenwald, flew to Sri Lanka as a volunteer for Mercy Corps. There, the killer waves left more than 30,000 people dead and at least half a million homeless, jobless, and traumatized -- in a country still recovering from decades of bloody civil war. When Jeff invited me to visit him in late February, it seemed like a good idea. I harbored a desire to do something useful -- something personal, however small. So, I flew to Columbo. On the east coast of the island, a 300-mile stretch of coastline was “fully affected”, in post-disaster parlance. Or in laymen‟s terms: wiped out. Dozens of global relief agencies have set up camp in the formerly sleepy town of Trincomalee. I rode out to Trinco and tagged along with Jeff on his latest assignment to visit project sites and write up success stories. “Tsunami Junction - 50 meters” -- Someone had tacked this homemade sign to a partially uprooted tree near Kinniya, a fishing village turned ghost town. In the former hospital, 499 of the 500 patients died in the tsunami. Water stains reach nine feet high on the remaining interior walls. Broken glass, contaminated syringes, and spilled medicines still litter the ground. It looks like the empty set of a war movie, only it's real. Driving along the coast, we pass house after missing house, razed to the foundations by a wall of water. Some of the rubble has been spray painted with survivors‟ names and current location -- usually a refugee camp -- so that relief, when it arrives, will know where to find them. Relief is coming, although perhaps more slowly than we might hope. Millions of dollars have poured into this country since the tsunami, yet most of the refugees are still living in camps, many in primitive conditions. Amid rumors of infighting, political power plays and graft, international aid seems to be taking a long time to filter down to those who need it most. “You have to remember,” said one British relief worker, a veteran of almost every war zone and international crisis of the past ten years, “None of us have ever dealt

with anything like this before. It‟s the kind of scene that makes you realize we need a bigger word for „disaster.‟” After hearing how politics are complicating rebuilding plans on the macro scale, our visits to the local projects were heartening. Community NGOs (non-government organizations) were busy cleaning wells, providing play camps for refugee children, putting fishmongers back in business, and rebuilding lives one by one. As we drove from project to project, the only word I recognized from non-English conversations was “tsunami…tsunami.” It has become the international „bigger word‟ for disaster. Aside from the Mercy Corps work, Jeff was also following up on a few outside projects. One of those led us to St. Joseph‟s Girls Home in Trincomalee. *** As of Christmas Day 2004, Sister Theresilda had 35 girls in her charge, many of them war orphans supported by modest government stipends. In the week following December 26, St. Joseph‟s had to make room for 20 more orphans, most of whom, Sister Theresilda noted sadly, “…came here with nothing, just nothing.” From the orphanage‟s already strapped coffers, she provided the 20 new wards with everything from toothbrushes to shoes. Then they needed school fees, books, notebooks, and pencils. The sisters raised some emergency funds for those expenses, but now must cope with the sudden, 60 percent increase in monthly maintenance costs as well as the increase in labor. The tsunami orphans are temporarily housed in a decrepit dormitory that, before the emergency, was slated for demolition. Even for a Third-World orphanage it‟s pretty grim, but it was the only space available. In the other dormitory, the 35 original orphans sleep on double bunks and all 55 girls share one bathroom, storing personal belongings, such as they are, in a suitcase or a paper shopping bag. Everyone at St. Joseph‟s is working overtime. In her „spare‟ time, Sister Theresilda is writing grant proposals for the building repairs and long-term maintenance funding. Meanwhile, the girls sleep on old straw mattresses in clean but cramped, hot, and buggy conditions. There are not enough mosquito nets to go around -- a major worry as the spring monsoon approaches. Although their most essential needs are somehow being met, the children have no toys, books, or games. There is simply no money for extras. *** On our second visit, one new “little sister” was celebrating her eighth birthday. A bit of cake and some handmade cards, along with the arrival of two exotic Westerners, made for an unusually exciting Saturday afternoon at the orphanage.

Ranging in age from 7 to 18, the girls were polite, well-scrubbed, and remarkably upbeat considering how recently many of them lost their homes, parents, and often their entire families. When asked what things they would wish for if they could receive a present, at first they were too shy to respond. With a little nudging, they timidly agreed more mosquito nets would be good. That got the ball rolling and soon a spontaneous, animated clamor broke out for another toilet, a cricket ball and bat, and a chess game. The smallest girl, caught up in this relative frenzy of wishmaking, piped, “A doll!” and then quickly clapped her own hand over her mouth in embarrassment. The purpose of our visit was to gather information for a Bay Area school that wanted to fund a school project in a tsunami-affected area. However, St. Joseph‟s did not fit their requirements and the money went somewhere else. Of course, I felt very disappointed by this news. I went to Sri Lanka with only a media imprint of the situation, but now disaster has a new definition and the tsunami has a face -- 55 faces, in fact. And I found I couldn‟t just walk away without trying to do something for them, however small. While I don‟t doubt the indomitable Sister Theresilda will eventually secure building funds and meet the other needs of her girls, not even she can produce such miracles overnight. I contacted her from India and offered to try to raise some quick cash on the grassroots level. Within a few days, I emailed their story to everyone I know -- and everyone they know, along with an online account to collect donations. The response has been heartwarming. My friends, family, and fellow travelers from all over the world are digging into their pockets, and within the first 48 hours, we had raised $330 dollars. That‟s nearly halfway to the first goal: to buy every child a good mattress to sleep on and a mosquito net to sleep under before the rains hit in mid-April. To put the orphan‟s expenses in perspective, maintenance costs including food, clothes, school fees and supplies, come to $30 US per child, per month. Their current level of financial support only covers the original 35 orphans, leaving them $600 in the hole every month just for the basics. A new foam mattress costs $5-10 in this part of the world. Mosquito nets cost about $2.50 each, a ceiling fan $40. If little girls‟ wishes were granted, a good cricket ball and bat could be had for $11, and $4 would buy a new chess set or a doll. Obviously, a grant of $1000 would go a very long way. The money could cover their expense gap for almost two months. It could pay to install another toilet and a few fans in the dormitories. It could be used to update the kitchen, including a new refrigerator so the sisters wouldn‟t have to shop for fresh food every day. By the

time the Backpack Nation grants are awarded in June, the orphans‟ immediate needs may have changed, but there is no question they will still need funds. If this story is chosen, I will wire the money directly to the orphanage bank account in Sri Lanka, and trust Sister Theresilda to choose the best way to use it. She has already happily offered to send me progress reports via email for any funds raised. The tsunami affected millions of people, most of whom had very little to begin with. In the aftermath of such a wide-scale calamity, there‟s no end to the number of worthy organizations and deserving projects. This is a chance to do something personal, to deliver almost instant relief at Tsunami Junction, one-to-one. Pick a face, any face. Here are 55 you can start with!

Some of the girls under Sister Theresilda's care at the St. Joseph’s Girls Home in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. *** Laurie Weed (laurieweed@hotmail.com), 35, is an American freelance writer, editor and nomad. She submitted this story from Asia, where she is wrapping up a six-month, shoestring trip through five countries. You can follow her trail of travel

dispatches online, or make a donation to the tsunami http://www.kismetworldwide.com/laurieweed/asia_update_16.htm

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