There is so little we can do in such an oppressive situation. Even tsunami victims had hope of a better day to come. These people live in constant despair and depression. As usual we played with as many children as would come. Seeing the children laugh and play made the parents laugh. Even relieving their sadness for a few moments seems worth the effort.
The rainy season usually ends in Batticaloa in mid-January. This year it is still going on into February. Since we are at sea level and the majority of the roads are dirt, travel can be difficult. Yesterday, we drove through water that came over the hood of our car. The engine sputtered and spat, but somehow we got through. Unfortunately, with the excessive flooding and standing water will come mosquito borne illnesses in the near future.
WALKING A VILLAGE
We walked a dirt road of a small village today. Within 10 homes we are helping: a blind man who needs cataract surgery (Nahamani, of a previous journal), a deaf girl, a girl hit by a tree and is now disabled, and a family that needs a well.
Economic times are very hard here. Everything is dramatically more expensive and the basic items of life have more than doubled in the past year. Gasoline, bread, fish, etc. have all risen to the point that day-to-day survival is difficult for many. Even in a coastal town, where fishing is a principle industry, the price of 1 kilo of local fish has gone from $2.50 to $8.00!
Narushan is a profoundly retarded boy we have been helping since the tsunami. Last year his 36 year-old mother Sumandini needed a kidney transplant. The surgery cost over $10,000 and the medications and monthly medical checks now cost over $400 per month. For family with an income of $200. Per month, they have had to sacrifice everything to pay expenses so far. Having sold all their goods, mortgaged their house and borrowed from every source, they are out of options. Her medical needs will lessen in a year, but it is still a life-time of expenses that await. With her life at stake, she cried bitter tears when I told her we do not have the resources to I told her that times are difficult in the US, but that I would make an appeal on her behalf. It was heart-wrenching to see her in such a desperate condition, for she know that anything other than taking all of her medications as prescribed will lead to rejection of her kidney. If any readers feel inclined to help, please email or visit our website.
It is gratifying when interest is shown in our work here. It is especially so when some offer to volunteer. We are scheduled to take two teenagers for work this summer. One will spend several weeks at Prithipura working with profoundly and severely retarded infants. The other will be performing his Eagle Scout project re-building a playground at the Ozanum Center for mentally handicapped in Batticaloa.
In the coming months we hope to entice volunteers to teach English. This will bring a double benefit as our costs will be reduced allowing us to reach more poor children and all students will benefit from a native English speaker practicing English as a Second Language techniques.
Our recent trip has been filled with poignant emotions. Two boys that we have been working with for almost 8 years have died. Karushan, a marvelous, intelligent and kind young man, finally succumbed to his brain tumor after a nine year battle Arulraj the youngest of the three boys afflicted with an unknown disease that slowly robs physical abilities, while leaving the mind clear was the first of his brothers to go. Even in a land where disease, birth defects and accidents take a great toll on the young, each death is still felt intensely.
Karushan's grandmother gave us a photo of his funeral, showing him lying out at home for all to visit, as is the custom. Next to him were the Nintendo game cube, various games, and a camera that were all donated to us for his use. He used the camera to take hundreds of pictures as his way of chronicling his life. We are developed what was left in the camera to present to his Ama. She told us, “Thank you for taking care of him. You made his life happy.”
Sisivathini is a 38 year-old woman, blind since birth. She lives alone with her mother in a tin sheet shack, living off sales of coconuts that fall in her yard. At 40 cents each, it was a meager existence. We have been providing short-term food assistance until a permanent solution could be implemented. As with many others in similar circumstances, a micro-credit loan for a chicken business is the solution. She will buy 50 one month old chicks and raise them for an additional month until they are large enough to sell as broilers. She will sell them in front of her house to the locals with the process repeating the following months. The net profit will be about $55. per month. Two years ago this would have been enough for two people to live on. With food prices so high it is about 60% of what they require, however, with the coconut sales added to this, she will have enough. We will provide a loan for $170 for the initial 50 chicks, feed for one month and medicines. She will pay 10% of her monthly profits to fulfill her commitment to the loan.
Prabaharan is a 40 year old man with severe mental illness, living with his mother in a tin sheet hovel. His mother earns a few pennies selling coconut pancakes on the street and the government gives them $2.50 per month and between these supports, they were starving.
As discussed in a previous journal, we have been supplying them with a monthly food pack which is enough to sustain mother and son. During our visit this week, the mother said, “I thank God first and Sri Lankan Help second!”
Living in a hovel with no sanitation and electric, life is extremely hard for his seventy year old mother. At night, mosquitoes and snakes swarm from the nearby swamp. For light, she burns a piece of cloth soaked in kerosene. The smoke makes it difficult to breath. When asked what else she needed, she said nothing as the food has made such a difference already. We will buy here a small kerosene lantern anyway with a month’s supply of kerosene.
The two have been squatters for many years and just recently were awarded the small plot of ground by the courts. We will work to build a small house for them in the coming year.
SOME GREAT FACES TO CLOSE
Helping a person, trapped in a crippled body, laugh, even for a moment, makes all the effort worthwhile!!
They have proven themselves capable over many months as they have been buying coconuts wholesale and re-selling them to their neighbors for a small profit. They buy a bag of coconuts for $20, and re-sell the coconuts individually for $25. putting aside the necessary cash to re-stock. This concept, which is so obvious to anyone who has run a small business, is very difficult to teach here. Many of the disadvantaged in the villages received only a few years of education at best. Living in poverty, it is tempting to clean out the till at then end of each day to buy food and of course, after a time there is no more inventory and no cash to buy it.
We are making a micro-loan to set them up to sell not only coconuts, but firewood, rice, chili powder and kerosene. This small scale should be easy to maintain and well within their proven abilities. We will check in weekly to help them stay on the right course. They will pay $1 per week to work off our loan.
To add to their struggles, their daughter Juresha had cataract surgery when only 2 years old, which did not work and must be re-done. The government does not pay for a second set of lenses and the $7,500 surgery cost is well above their means. There are serious questions about the medical advice and care they have received, so we have proposed that they travel to Colombo to a large hospital for a second opinion. We will cover the costs and go with them to assist and translate and guide them thru the maze that is Colombo.
We began our latest relief trip on August 21st. I left Washington in the company of Jonathan Richards, a Boy Scout from McLean Virginia. Jon asked to come with me to perform his Eagle Scout project in Sri Lanka. Most scouts do a project in their local community, but Jon said he wanted to do a project that will make a difference in the world for years to come.
Jon plans two projects. This first is to build a small store (the Sri Lankan version of 7-11) for Mrs. Amerthilingam. With the proceeds of the store, she will be able to support herself and family, including her severely retarded son.
The other project is to build a net ball court for the girls at the Holy Family orphanage. Net ball is the girl’s version of basketball, played in many countries of the British Commonwealth. These girls live a rigorous life of school, homework and chores. They have little time or facilities for recreation.
The work progressed quickly, by Sri Lankan standards. Carpenters were hired to outfit the store, materials were procured and initial inventory was developed. Not unexpectedly, Mrs. Amerthilingam's husband showed-up after being gone from the home for quite a while. He is an alcoholic and very abusi ve man. He has spent time in jail for what he has done and has been forbidden to come back. Hearing that Americans were buildin g a store was too much to resist as he saw a big profit for himself. We were called whe n he arrived and we ran immediately to the home. The police were brought in and they carried him off. Later, at the police station, it was “explained” to him that he needs to stay away. The poor mother was visibly shaken. Fortunately phone service has just been brought to her remote village and we provided a phone so she can call the police immediately if needed in the future.
Sunday afternoon, was the dedication of the newly outfitted and stocked store. Neighbors came to see where they will be shopping from now on. Mrs. Amerthilingam performed a lovely Hindu dedication and then feed us with the offerings she had made to the gods. Jon did a very good job in organizing and implementing his plan. All who have supported him should be very proud.
We have been helping Sampritha with various medical problems since her birth. I have previously reported that after many doctor visits and no conclusive answer to her regular fevers, night sweats and seizures, we found that her well was contaminated with e-coli as well as fertilizer. I thought that providing clean drinking water and regular de-worming medicine for the family would solve the problems. Recently she began coughing fits that last up to 5 hours at a time, always starting about 8PM. We took her to Colombo for a consult and she was put on allergy medicine, but with little improvement. We then took her to Dr. Gayathry, a local practitioner in acupuncture and homeopathy. She immediately diagnosed the problem as an allergy to her plastic binkie she sucks every night. It of course seems obvious now that the allergy would be related to bed time, but this escaped the doctors at the best hospital in the country. She also feels that many of Sampritha’s problems are because her mother was pregnant with her at the time of the tsunami. The tremendous stress, fear and anxiety from that time has effected Sampritha and could be the root of other problems.
Nahamani and his wife are very old have been very sick. Last year we build a chicken coop and purchased 15 chickens so they could support themselves without leaving their home. When I went to visit, I was surprised because he acted as though he did not know me. I discovered that his cataracts have advanced to the point that he can only see outlines. We offered to pay for surgery, but he refused because he was told that he would go blind after the surgery. When I pointed out that he was virtually blind now and had little to lose, he relented. For only $60. he will have his sight restored. It is amazing still to me how powerful the donations we receive are for good.
If anyone is wondering, Sri Lankan has a socialized medical plan and all care is free. Unfortunately the lines for care a horrible and advanced care such as cataract surgery, heart by-pass or orthodontics are not covered. The only way someone can receive care is by paying a private doctor.
The Zaira camp is the longest running refugee camp in the East. It first served tsunami victims and in late 2005 became filled with those displaced by the war. Like most refugees today, the government will never let them return to their homes. They recently received another 30 familiesy shipped from another local camp, so they are filled to capacity with 114 families in a very small area.
Each camp has a personality of its own and here the personality is over active! Each time we have visited over the years, we have been over-run by the children. They are so starved for attention that they cannot control themselves. A few times we have gotten so mauled that we had to leave. The key to keeping some control is to have the children form a line when candies or toys are being handed out. In a group of 150 children, at least half will stay in line. That doubles our chance of surviving!
The plight of these people is very sad. With very little warning, a truck showed up the other night to move some families out to another camp. They are caught in not only a humanitarian nightmare but a political battle as well between the Tamils and the central government.
For a long time we have felt that learning English is critical for the advancement of the Tamil people. They live in a country where they cannot talk with 70% of the population and when dealing with the government (which is constantly) they are at a severe disadvantage. In addition, English skills are key to a well paying job. With unemployment high and jobs scarce, English skill is often the deciding factor when hiring.
There are English schools here that charge about $80 per month which is out of the reach of the average family. In addition, all English classes both in school and private are taught by Tamils who usually did not learn the language well themselves. The students at best learn a very flawed version of the language.
The idea we are pursuing is to provide classes with tuition based on a sliding scale, so those that cannot afford the classes, but need them the most, will pay nothing. The classes will include language lab time, a new concept here. (We would use computer based programs such as Rosetta stone.) We would try to attract Americans looking for a 3 to 6 month oversees experience, who are willing and able to teach English. In this way, the students will learn vocabulary and pronunciation correctly.
For an average fee of 50 cents per class the school could be self-sufficient. We are in the very preliminary stages right now and substantial governmental approvals loom ahead.
Selvim is an intelligent man, forced to beg for a living because of severely deformed feet. We have seen him for several years and always offer to buy him a meal. The other day, my eyes were opened and I realized that he has nothing more than a stick to use for a cane. The stick is too short and requires him to stoop over as he walks. When asked if he would like a cane that was the right size, he gratefully agreed. We will purchase one for about $10 when we return to Colombo. It is amazing how quickly we take for granted the needy around us without seeing what we can do to help
Siloshini is a profoundly retarded girl of fourteen we have been helping for about a year. During our recent visit, I asked if she had a wheelchair. Her father said yes, but they cannot use it because it does not give her proper support. We placed her in the chair, and he showed me what changes would be needed for her safety and comfort. We called in a local welder, who took all the required descriptions and dimensions and for about $20, Siloshini will soon be riding in her customized chair.
I was surprised to see the name The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on the back of her wheelchair. Our Church has donated thousands of wheelchairs to organizations such as the Lion’s Club for distribution worldwide. When I pointed this out to our staff, they said there are dozens of chairs from the LDS Church in Batticaloa.
It is the middle of the dry season now and as such, mosquitoes are not as much as a problem as normal. But it was just 3 months ago that an outbreak of dengue fever hit Batticaloa. During the outbreak countless residents were afflicted. At that time we supplied pesticides to be sprayed where mosquitoes breed. Since our last trip, we have been providing mosquito killers (bug zappers.) For only $8 each we are able to protect those least able to protect themselves such as the elderly, handicapped, infants or the infirm.
Today we are taking Sister Celestine, a very elderly nun to see Dr. Gayathry. She has cancer and must take the bus to Colombo regularly for treatment. The bus drivers here are almost maniacal in their speed and recklessness and during a recent trip, Sister Celestine was jostled so badly that her spine was crushed. We are hoping that acupuncture treatments will alleviate some her constant pain.
NET BALL COURT
The second project for our Eagle Scout Jon is a net ball court for the Holy Family orphanage. The court is proceeding like most construction projects here – VERY SLOWLY. We are hoping it will be completed today. Jon will then take a small army of volunteers to paint lines and restore the grounds damaged by construction.
While Jon is representing the Boy Scouts, we were able to bring presents from a Girls Scout Troop in McLean, VA. The troop gathered pencils, markers and other essentials here as well as earrings. In addition, they sent each girl a hand-written card. For these girls, getting a letter from America is the best gift of all. They sent their thanks via a short video which I will give to the Scouts.
Last year, we met Yogeswaran and his wife Priya. They are a typical couple: young and in love. The big difference is that Yogeswaran is totally blind. Because of this his wife’s family cut them off for marrying against their wishes. There are few opportunities for the blind here, so consequently, he is unable to work. With no income and no family support, they were in a desperate situation. To alleviate the most essential needs, we have been bringing monthly food packs of basic staples.
Last year they asked for assistance in opening a small shop at their house. We resisted because others in similar situation have not always succeeded because understanding basic business principles can be difficult. At that time they were told to get started on a small scale and we would take a look at how they did. If they did well, we would move forward with full assistance.
Ruksi is a young girl I met a few months ago who was developing normally until a tree fell on her. She seems very strong mentally, but she cannot move her arms or legs, except with great effort. She could only say a few simple words as well. We are helping her with regular medical treatments to slow her tremors and lessen her muscles sufficiently to use her hands and feet. In just a few months she has improved greatly. Her speech has increased tremendously and she is even able to draw pictures. When we came to her house the other day to give her some markers and coloring books, we called fro her. She replied, “Oy” meaning, “Yeah, what?” In hear case the sassy reply was very welcome.
Last fall, we began operations a few hours south of Batticaloa. It is only abut 40 miles distant, but the roads are in such poor condition (similar to right after the tsunami) that it takes about 3 hours of kidney bouncing to get there.
I met a very tragic family. Husband and wife are now raising the children of their son who was killed in a military ambush in 2007. His wife went overseas soon after and the grandparents are now raising 3 children including a very severely handicapped little girl named Kumarika. The grandmother’s tears came often as we spoke for not only did she lose her son 3 years ago, but her oldest was killed by the army in 1990 and her next committed suicide in 1998. The emotional and physical burden are too great for this couple and thy have asked us to help place their granddaughter in a facility where she can be cared for better. Such places are few and far between, but we will do our best to help.
We are always trying to bring a little joy in to the lives of our 2 dozen orphan girls. This trip I brought a tether ball. Introducing anything new here is very difficult because the answer always is, "We don't do that here" meaning, “if we haven't done it before, we have no interest in ever doing it in the future.” In the case however, the girls took to the game very quickly. Too quickly, in fact, as a few girls got bruised faces from the ball being hit so hard. None complained however, because they were having so much fun.
Last year, we bought a hearing aid for a young man who had not heard any sounds since he was a child. The doctor assured us with the hearing aid his hearing and comprehension would slowly return. Sadly, after a year, it became apparent that this was not going to be the case. It has been so long, that he lost all memory of words and sounds and consequently was unable to process what his ears now took in. We regrettably took the hearing aid back, but immediately met Dilekshi, a girl of 14 who has a severe hearing loss. We had her hearing tested; ears examined and now have a prescription for hearing aid re-programming when we return to Colombo next Monday. The doctor said she is a clear candidate for success. She is extremely shy because of her disability, so I am looking forward to the change in her life on our next trip.
This Saturday, we are taking the 40 or so resident of Ozanum Home to the beach. This will be their first ever outing and those who take care of these retarded residents are very nervous. They agreed after I gave a prolonged look of a sad puppy dog. (The fact that I invited all the staff to the beach helped too!)
The cases where we can do nothing are the hardest to deal with. We have been visiting a couple from Sumandurai who had three normal, healthy children. One by one each fell into total mental and physical incapacity. Two have died and the likely they third will soon follow. In their grief and pain, they are desperate for another child. They understand that they cannot have one naturally, but have asked help in adoption. They had heard out oversees adoptions and assumed they could get a baby easily. I had to explain that overseas adoptions are to countries with greater wealth. In addition I told them that the probability of success for them is very low. Sri Lanka is very slow to allow adoptions and they would never do so to a dirt poor family with a dying child and a father who is moving to the Middle East to earn more money.
It also fell to me twice on the same day to tell two different families with severely handicapped children that they would never become "normal". Doctors are loathe to give bad new directly so dying patients or parents of the handicapped are always given hope that things will work out. As such they often delay the hard but necessary decisions.
MONTHLY FOOD PACKS
There are many individuals and families for whom we provide regular food packs consisting of rice, flour, milk powder, dhal, sugar, fish, TVP and other essentials. We do this when we feel they have no other options. One such example is Awapillai. She is an 80 year-old woman who lost here leg to an artillery shell that exploded near her home during the civil war. Each day she rides her hand driven bike to various towns and begs on the streets, earning about $2.00 a day.
Another is Prabaharan, a 40 year old mentally ill man who lives with his mother in a squatters hut. He stays inside all day, unless cajoled to come out and then only for a short time. He will not wash unless forced by his mother and then he will not stop for 4 or 5 hours. His mother could put him into a facility, but she knows that he will not be treated well so she struggles to get by with the few dollars she can earn by leaving him for short stretches.
We are sadly losing our long-time driver and assistant manager John Paul Sebamli. Throughout the years he has tried various business ventures, but always come back to our team. Now, trying to earn more money to get his family out of debt and provide a dowry for his younger sister, he is going to work in Qatar for the next two years. Sadly for us, these two year terms usually extend to four and six years.
TRAINING FOR THE HANDICAPPED
Countless families have handicapped children at home and cannot get them any care because of the difficulty of transportation. We are putting a program together to provide an itinerant teacher to perform physical and other therapies with these children. Training the parents is also a critical part of this mission since the therapist will only be in the home a few hours a week. Without parental involvement, there can be no progress.
Last week, we met in the home of a moderately retarded boy, who clearly has potential to walk and talk. His mother had taken him to the city to Handicap International. They taught her how to perform exercises that will loosen and strengthen the boys limbs, none of which she has done. They also provided her with custom leg braces, valued at $1,000, to support the boy in standing. They were never used and found lying in a corner covered with clothes. When I told her how important the braces and exercises were to the boys future development, she said, “I heard the same thing from Handicap International.”
It is often hard to motivate overworked parents. Often the attitude is “What’s the use?” Add to that the shame and guilt which often goes along with having a handicapped child and it is easy to see how some children never progress.
The Sri Lankan education system is modeled after the British colonial system. Learning focuses on rote memorization and advancement is for a limited few. For the Tamils, the limit is even greater. There is one university open to Tamils and that, only to those who obtain high marks on their “A Level” examinations. The selection process is a fixed number of the highest grades. There is no bell curve. Therefore, many with very good marks cannot go to the Eastern University. For those that do, the courses are limited to those areas that prepare them for government employment. Management and accounting are the most common majors. If you have interest in another field – pure science, for example, you must apply to a university in the west, where your exam grades and ethnicity will determine if you get in.
Once graduated from the university, they are guaranteed a government position, when available, which mean they may be unemployed for years waiting for a position to open.
Those who are smart, but did not qualify for the university, are eligible for the teaching college. Those who do not do well on their exams must fend for themselves.
Over the years we have helped many disadvantaged individuals and groups with special classes, books etc., to help them do their best.
With so much emphasis on the exam grades, teachers, not surprisingly, teach to the test, focusing on memorization and omitting other parts of the students’ education. Because of this focus, critical thinking skills are very limited. It is very difficult for Sri Lankans to “think outside the box” as they are never taught or encouraged to do so because their exams do not require this skill.
Our plans to open an English school in the poorest areas are moving forward. Government approval should be obtained in about two months. We spent a day scouting the best location for the school and chose a town named Chenkalady, about 10 miles north of Batticaloa. Here we will have students from families that have some money and can afford to pay. More importantly it is accessible by bike or bus to the extremely poor whose families work in the rice paddies, the ones we are actually trying to reach. These students will be offered scholarships so their tuition will be minimal.
Shiloshini is a profoundy retarded teenage girl we have been assisting for several years. Unable to walk or even move more than her arms, she needed a proper place to sit that would support her and be comfortable for many hours each day. We recently provided her with a custom built chair which after many months of use has proven to meet the criteria. She also has a problem swallowing food into her lungs ad therefore has had frequent lung infections. As an experiment, we provided a small blender to her parent so they can puree her meals, hopefully making it easier for Shiloshini to swallow the food properly.
Thank you for your support!!!
As with so many parts of the developing world, weather is a source of struggle. Each winter the monsoon season hits the east. With no storm drainage system, the water collects and floods many houses, roads are closed, power is often out and life slows to a crawl. Once the rain stops, the inevitable diseases such as malaria and dengue hit. This year, the rainy season was very short and slowly the effects are being felt as the rivers have dried and water tables have dropped. Consequently the government is planning water restrictions. Rice fields are dying and prices have risen. This summer, power outages are to be expected as the hydroelectric plant will be under powered.
We are leaving for Colombo tonight and the netball court is almost there. Between equipment breakdowns, worker breakdowns, communication breakdowns, I am glad we are far along as we are. One local netball coach said it would take about 2 month to do the work.
Jon gathered a volunteer force of over 15 this morning to clean-up and restore the sight. If he can manage a force of that many without speaking their language, he can pretty much handle anything!
ITINERANT PHYSICAL THERAPIST
We are currently advertising for a physical therapist to start our in-home service to the handicapped. We plan to work with at least 20 children per week for an hour each. The initial investment is small and the monthly costs will be about $200 for salary and gasoline (which costs over $6 per gallon!)
Each child will receive gross motor training for muscle development and greater flexibility; fine motor training such as grasping and self-feeding; and speech therapy such as oral development and learning simple sign language.
This is the first time of all our trips that there has not been a hartal or political strike, to slow us down. Our last day here however, was severely hampered because it was a poya day, a Buddhist full-moon festival day. We come to Colombo at the end of each trip with a list of items to purchase that can only be found there. Unfortunately, most stores were closed, so it took a lot of searching to find various items to fulfill our promises.
We delivered hand-held massagers, tea tree oil and insect repellant to the Prittipura home. They have also asked for 15 mobiles to put over the many cribs they have with severely mentally and physically handicapped children and adults.
We also took tea tree oil, insect repellant and massagers to the Anandapura Home. Their residents are all ambulatory and higher functioning. Some older residents are in their sixties and consequently we brought walkers, to not only help the elderly, but those for whom walking is more difficult.
Last week we visited a poor family whose church had built them a chicken coop so they could support themselves by selling the eggs. Unfortunately, it was build with a corrugated metal roof and sides. The sun beating on the metal made the temperature inside so high that all the chickens died. For about $50 we will re-build the coop with proper wire mesh walls and stock it with a few chickens to get the family started again.
It came down to the wire, but the net ball court was completed and Jon, seen here with some of the orphan girls, proudly made his presentation a few minutes before we headed out of Batticaloa. With the money leftover from Jon’s fundraising efforts, he will help establish a micro-loan program in the coming months.
So much of what we do, what we have always done, is fill in gaps. Ours is not glamorous work, but bringing cooking supplies to refugee camps, medicines to the housebound or a little joy to the forgotten elderly, is important work. We will never be recognized as a great and powerful international NGO. But what we are known as among the countless hundreds of poor and needy we help, is………..a friend.
Chitra is a mother of two young children. She looks much older than her twenty-nine years and her life story explains why. Married young, she had two toddlers when her husband was taken by the police for questioning, never to be seen again. Her daughter, Nishantini is mentally retarded and suffers from cerebral palsy. Her son, Nishantan, is autistic and suffers from thelassemia. Unable to work because of the care her children require, she has eked out a living for the past 6 years in a tin sheet hut.
We started working with Chitra last year, providing her with basic food staples each month. We also took Nishantini to a local alternative medicine doctor we work with, and after only a few months of treatment to loosen her stiff legs, she has begun to walk! We are in the process loaning her money to buy 15 chickens, a coop and other items needed for an egg selling business. She had many chickens in the past, but had to sell them during the long search for her husband, so we feel confident that she will make a success of the venture.
With time so short and computers hard to find in the East, this is our first journal we have been able to get out.
One of our goals this trip was to help a twenty-one year old man named Sathiskan, who has been deaf since he was young. He had a hearing aid until age 10, but once broken, it was too expensive to replace. He was forced to drop out of school and is unable to work in other than the most menial of tasks. Last year, we sought assistance from other NGO’s but to no avail.
Our first stop was to buy a hearing aid in Colombo. Because it was too dangerous to bring him with us, we had only his hearing test to go by. We bought a digital hearing aid for his right ear, for $550. Upon arrival in Batticaloa, we took him to the hearing specialist for his final fitting. Not knowing what to expect, we were surprised when Sathiskan had no reaction. In fact, he did not appear to hear anything at all. We were told by the doctor that because it has been so many years since he has heard any significant sound, it will take quite a while for his brain to process what his ears now are hearing.
Soon after the tsunami, we helped a recently widowed mother of two named Sujata in various ways. We assisted her in starting a small roadside store. She did not have any business experience and the store has not done well. We have now taken on the task of teaching her how to manage the store, maintain the proper inventory and track sales. To give her a jump start, we are providing about $100 in additional inventory.
We have spent quite a lot of time with the girls at the Holy Family orphanage. Several fourth grades classes in Fairfax County had a drive to procure Barbie dolls and clothes for the girls. In addition, they raised the money necessary to ship the dolls. When I asked the girls if they remembered their last request to me in September, they all jumped up and shouted “Dress-Up dolls!”
Last year, they also asked for an outing to the local lighthouse. We took all 21 girls there on Wednesday. We hired a boat to take us across the lagoon to the ocean, where they played without a care. This is a rare treat for some of these girls, for their family lives are all stories of sadness. Most are orphans due to the tsunami or civil war. Others have been abandoned. One girl had a family a few months ago, but they have disappeared into a refugee camp in the north and she has not heard from them since.
The one thing our young friend Karushan requested was a “TV game” meaning video game. We presented him with a donated Nintendo Game Cube which he took to as any American youth. He had never played a video game before, but he has a quick and inventive mind, in spite of his growing brain tumor. Unable to go to school because of his cancer, we have always felt that anything we can give him to ease his pain and bring him joy is well worth the trouble.
We met a new boy today. Hindushan is eight years old and is severely mentally retarded. He and his family live in a remote village and because his father works as a day laborer (called a “coolie” here) he gets very little in proper care. Because he lives so far away, we cannot bring him regular care, but for now we will be providing a wheelchair from our stock as well as groceries. In addition, we gave some Deetz insect repellant so he can keep the ever present flies away.
Last September, I brought a few “bug zappers” as an experiment. They worked well and many expressed interest in buying them. I brought a number with me this trip and we have given them out to the neediest and are selling the others to offset the cost.
Last year we also brought handheld massagers which were a big hit with the handicapped and elderly. We bought several more this time including a few for sale.
We also brought a number of fun and educational games for the elder homes inColombo and Batticaloa. We brought various items to stimulate Alzheimer patients including flash cards and baby dolls, which the women will often carry all day in remembrance of their earlier life. It was wonderful to see eight tables filled with happy old people playing Parcheesi, Checkers, Chutes and Ladders, Connect Four, Hearts, and Jenga. As wonderfully as these people are cared for, they have little to break-up their day. Our investment of $50 will pay dividends for a long time.
Dr. Murali is a dentist who has cared for many handicapped and poor we have brought to him. To re-pay him for his efforts, we brought him a complete inventory of donated orthodontic tools. When he begins this work, he will be the first and only doctor doing orthodontic care for many, many miles. We are glad to be a part of that progress.
So often the greatest experiences here come when we least expect them. Monday was a national holiday for the Hindu and Buddhist New Year. Some of our plans were canceled and we were about to call the day when we drove past a woman pushing a severely deformed man in a wheelchair. His left arm was twisted 180 degrees, and bent at the elbow so that the back of his hand is actually behind his left shoulder. His right arm was bent permanently at a right angle. His head was pulled sharply to his right. He did not speak as we talked to the woman, and we assumed he was mentally handicapped as well. When I asked to take a picture, he suddenly came to life. Not only was he very intelligent, but had a marvelous smile while posing for the camera. I eventually asked what we could do for him and he asked for a wheelchair. After looking over his wheelchair, I asked why he needed another. He said that his was very old (which it was) and was in constant need of repair. To our amazement, he said that he repaired the chair himself with his feet, but the work was very slow and needed almost daily. As we examined the chair closer, we could see he was right.
Earlier that day we were in Arpico, Sri Lanka’s version of a department store, buying supplies for an elder home. (They were one of the few stores open on the holiday.) I noticed a wheelchair for sale, which they never carried before. The price was too good to be true at $115. We took Chamika back to the store with us to be sure the fit was right.
His story slowly unfolded to us as we traveled with him. The woman pushing him was his wife. They had both met as beggars a few years ago and now she takes care of him. She brings him on the bus each day to Colombo, where he begs on the street. On a good day, he earns about $6, with which he supports his wife and himself, his mother, sister and two nephews. His mother is also crippled and his plan is to have her use his old chair.
At Arpico, he was thrilled as we lifted him in. I do not think that store has ever seen such a sight as only the upper classes and foreigners shop there. Many gathered around in amazement. Chamika could not stop smiling and saying thank you.
Not wanting his wife to navigate with two wheelchairs back home, we drove them. What we took them to is difficult to describe. We have seen the basest of poverty at times here, but only on an individual basis. Chamika’s home was a shanty town consisting of dozens of wood and tin shacks without windows, electricity or water. The homes were dark, smoky and filled with foul odors. Located at the bottoms of a steep hill they were flooded during monsoon rains. How his wife gets him up and down this hill everyday with his wheelchair is a mystery as it took three of us to do the job.
We met the rest of his family and though living in squalor, they were able to smile freely. The only additional request they had was for repairs to the roof so that they could stay dry during the rains. A neighbor agreed to do the labor for free if we provide the $75 in tin sheets. It is impossible to describe how great an impact such small expenditures can make. And while we cannot change the almost unimaginable plight of Chamika and his family, I know we have helped lift his spirits and lighten his load just a bit. By his smile, I was assured he understands that he has a friend in Sri Lankan Help that he can turn to in the future.
Each visit, we bring various personal items such as soap, toothbrushes, etc. to the prisoners at Batticaloa Prison. We have been granted unusual access and have been blessed by it. The warden, who first let us in, died. The second has been transferred. We were very grateful that the third warden has continued the trust in us. The prison population has increased 50 percent due to the war and deteriorating economy and conditions will only get worse in the coming months.
Sisigala is woman with severe cerebral palsy whom we have assisted for over a year. She has been virtually housebound her entire life. We now take her on regular outings so that she can experience the world around her. She is Catholic and asked us if we would take her to a famous shrine called Sorikalmunai for Good Friday services. Making this trip of only 25 miles each way fulfilled a lifelong desire. Earlier this year we built her a sidewalk to help her move from the house to the outside toilet. Previously she had to drag herself through the dirt or mud during the rainy season. With her new concrete walk and rolling cart we provided, she feels like she is living in luxury!
We were able to help a young man and his family return to Sri Lanka. They, like so many, had fled the war and violence for a better life in another country. Unfortunately, they were not able to find residency in a host country. Repatriation can often be very difficult, but thankfully, all went well in their case. We are now working with another family in the same circumstances.
We took needed medical supplies to Anandapura, home to over 50 mentally retarded adults. They have asked for more help than usual in the future because donations from others have slowed dramatically due to the world economic crisis. I told them we will do our best, but we too suffer from the same problem.
Amertham is an elderly fisherman we have been helping since the tsunami. He ruptured a disk while fishing and has been unable to work since. He has been in constant pain and last fall he told me that he no longer wanted to live. One of our American medical consultants suggested acupuncture. We were fortunate to have a relationship with the only doctor who performs this treatment. She has been seeing Amertham since last fall and the results have been miraculous. His pain is gone and he has a new lease on life. He is now ready to go back to work fishing for prawns.
Soon after the tsunami, we assisted a young widow named Sujata in various ways. Working to help her become self-sufficient, we helped her start a small roadside stand. Without any experience or training, the store has struggled. We will now be meeting with her weekly to teach her about tracking sales, managing inventory and other basics. In addition, we will be providing about $100 worth of additional inventory to make her store more useful and appealing to her customers.
Sugadassa is a wonderful man who lost his lower legs in a train accident 10 years ago. Since then, he has supported himself and his family by begging. We have crossed paths 3 times over the years in different parts of the capitol. In a city as large and populous as Colombo, that seems almost impossible. He has never asked for help before, but this time he asked if we would build a small room for he and his wife to live in. They now live in their son’s tiny 2-room home along with their 3 grandchildren. The cost of over $1,000 will take some time to raise, but I am hoping by early next year we can help this noble man achieve his wish.
Late last year, we assisted the Ozanum home by re-building a playground for them. The previously unused and unsafe playground cost under $300 to turn into a pleasant and safe area for their 25 mentally handicapped residents.
We brought various items to cheer them, including a crown for Maya, a young woman who has blossomed since moving here after years of being forced to beg on the streets, by her father.
September 26, 2008
The Thiraimudu refugee camp has been slowly decreasing in size as the Swiss government has been building homes for the refugees. (We have been working with these people from our first days here in 2005.) There were about 50 families left including Sathakaran, the young man whose education we have helping to further. Their future homes were about 75% complete when the local political group (equivalent to Tammany Hall) decided to give the homes to their party members. To prevent this, the refugees quickly moved into the unfinished homes. To avoid the taking over of the houses in the refugee camp, they were demolished, a great waste.
There are two camps left in Batticaloa, consisting of war refugees, many here for over 2 years. The camps are too big for us to bring any amount of supplies and divide them equally, so we are limited to playing with the children and working with special needs families. At the Sinhala Mahavajaeliam camp, we entertained about 100 children with games of tag, hot potato, Jack says, Indian wrestling and the like. Today we are handing out donated stuffed animals.
At the camp I met Janani a young mentally and physically handicapped girl who is unable to receive schooling because she has no ride to the facilities. We are going to work to make arrangements for her transportation.
Yesterday, we delivered out usual “care packages” to the 263 inmates at the local prison, including 10 women, some with children and 2 young boys who could not have been more than 14. Shaking 263 hands as I give out the supplies made me feel like a candidate on the campaign trail!
Last night we introduced the Piñata to Sri Lanka. (A little Mexican culture will do them good!) Each time a little candy leaked out the girls would rush to get it, a few getting wacked by the girl still trying to break the bag.
I leave tonight on the all night train back to Colombo. While there I will buy items that can only be found in the capital city. On the way out, I will visit Pritipura and Anandapura, two wonderful facilities for the mentally handicapped.
I met Sathiskan recently. He is a 21 year-old man with extreme hearing loss. He had a hearing aid that broke 8 years ago and his family has been unable to get a replacement. For eight years he has been unnecessarily deaf. Unable to finish school, untrained in sign language or lip reading and unable to get a job, his life is wasting away because of this small device. I met with Samaritan’s Purse, a local NGO, about helping him. Although their policy is to only provide hearing aids to children under 16, they are considering an exception. If they do not, I will investigate a purchase while in Colombo.
September 23, 2008
HARTAL! I hate the word. It is a call for a general shut-down in the Tamil world. All shops, schools, banks, etc. close as a protest, usually against the government. Today it is in response to 2 Tamil boys being abducted in the all Muslim town of Kattankudy. Ethnic violence exploded here a few months ago but for now reprisals are few. (Riding home last night about 10 PM, I passed a small Muslim vending stand on fire.)
What a Hartal means for the school kids is a day off. What it means for the Tamils and Muslims is 10 to 20 days of lost income each year. What it means for me is a very restricted day and with only 2 weeks in the country, each day is precious.
I visited earlier this week with Fatima, a beautiful 16 year-old girl with a rare problem called Sturge-Weber syndrome. She is afflicted with many problems, the worst of which is increasingly frequent and intense seizures. I researched the illness prior to coming and found there is little that can be done. In fact, if she keeps getting worse, removal of part of her brain is the only treatment. As her mother cried, her father said pleadingly, “Please help us.” No matter how many people we can help, cases like Fatima leave me deeply sad.
Sisigala is a young woman we met earlier this year with severe cerebral palsy. She cannot walk or more her hands well, but she has a personality that makes you forget her handicap within seconds. Her primary caretakers (mother and grandmother) both died this year and she was left virtually alone for quite a while. Fortunately, her aunt moved in to care for her and is doing a very good job. Her uncle is a day laborer, so money is very tight. To give her a treat we took her out for a ride and then to buy some much needed new clothes. I wheeled her around in my daughter Laura’s old wheelchair which brought back many memories. I told Sisigala that with these pretty new clothes the traffic was going to come to a halt when she went out. She broke into an almost uncontrollable laugh!
She has been confined to the floor of her home for her entire life, and has never been to the beach or any place farther than about 1 mile from her house. Each month we will be taking her on an excursion to learn about the world around her.
I met with Sisireka, a mother of three children. She works in the morning and evenings for a few hours as a maid. Since her husband died several years ago, she has been left in great poverty. Her water source is an old steel barrel dug into the ground. We are going to work with local NGO’s to dig her well. If they will not, than we will provide it for her.
Times have been very difficult in Sri Lanka because of inflation due to high oil prices and the costs financing the civil war. As such many, such as Sandosum have been out of work for much of this year. He has worked for us on and off ever since the tsunami and is a trusted and good worker. To make ends meet for his family, Sandosum borrowed $900 from a “money man,” which in our parlance would be loan shark. He makes monthly interest payment of $45 (about ½ of his income) which amount to 60% interest annually. Since he is not making a payment against the principal, he will never re-pay the loan. If he falls behind, the lender can bring in the police and seize Sandosum’s property, no court action required.
To help him get back on his feet, I am making a personal loan for the $900, which he will pay back without interest over two years. His payment will be $32.50 each month and in 2 years he will be debt free. More importantly he will use the money saved now to feed his family which has been difficult. I asked him how much he spends each day on food. He said, “If I earn 5 dollars, I spend 5 dollars. If I earn nothing, I spend nothing (meaning the family goes without).”
Yesterday, I visited with Lal Wikramasinge, the warden of the Batticaloa Prison. He asked for a television set for the men. (Earlier this year we provided one for the women) and our usual supply of personal care items such as soap, toothpaste, etc. Since there is nothing for the prisoners to do all day, the $140 investment will go a long way. He says it will help to calm them down, and knowing how the country will watch a cricket match for 3 days straight, in rapt attention, I believe him. I also met with the President of the Prisoners Welfare Board and he had two additional proposals. The first was to supply molds for various concrete products found in most homes. These include decorated wall panels, flower pots, medallions, etc. When I return to Colombo, I will make arrangements to purchase as many as we have funds for. This is a great idea, because they can make these products at the same time that they are making cinder blocks with the machine we provided in February. Now as then, all profits go the care of the prisoners’ children.
The second proposal I think is even better. He asked for materials to build a house for a soon to be released prisoner. The house would be built on land the prisoner already has (perhaps left desolate by the tsunami.) The work would be done by the prisoners, the cinder blocks and decorative items provided by them as well. All we would have to provide would be cement, roof framing, roof tiles, doors and windows. It has been great to see the prisoners get out of their cells to work at the block factory. It will be a real thrill to see them working in a village, out among their own people once again.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2008
Security is very tight. The army is about to begin a major assault in the north so everyone is on high alert. There was a bus bombing on Tuesday in Colombo. I unknowingly drove right past the site a few minutes afterwards. I was amazed that there were only 4 injuries, but thanks to a brave driver and conductor, all were saved. It was the bus I was on the day before while on my way to Mother Theresa’s orphanage. That’s two near misses in one!
On Saturday, we rented a bus and took 18 of orphan girls to the beach. As they ran to the water and then scampered back away from the waves, it was obvious they had not been very often. They came dressed in their Sunday best, but after a few minutes all were covered in sand and sea water. Many dug in the sand for tiny clams and ran them back to me each time saying, “Jack-maddi! (Jack-big clam!)”. I said thank you to each gift and then quietly threw them back in the ocean when they were not looking.
We played tag and volley ball and sang songs but the highlight of the day came as local fisherman cast their net for the afternoon haul. The net is several hundred yards long and is set out in the ocean with both ends back on shore forming a huge U-shape. Immediately, they begin to pull the net back in. This is a struggle of about one hour for fifty men. The girls and I joined in. It is hard work to pull with all you might and make only a few feet of progress or to dig your feet in the sand and fight against being pulled into the water. It is a real-life game of tug-of-war between man and nature! The girls would alternately give up and then get a better grip and try again. We all fell to the sand exhausted when finally about 1,000 pounds of fish had been brought up to the beach. The fishermen were genuinely glad for our help and gave us our share of about 5 pounds, which the girls ate that night for dinner.
Not wanting the day to end, we went for ice cream, to a park and finally, at dark, to home. I think they will remember this day for a long time. All that fun and memories for less than $50!
We visited Sanathan yesterday. He is a young, severely retarded boy that I met shortly after the tsunami. His mother, alternately threatened, then abandoned, by an abusive husband, has been raising her family the best she could with almost nothing. Over the years we have helped with monthly groceries, medical care, a wheelchair, and assistance with constructing a home. As soon as I entered the house he began moving his finger in a circular motion. We played 20 questions trying to figure out what he was trying to say. “Ball?, no, Food?, no, Play?, no…..” Finally we said, “FAN”, and his head bobbed up and down. Sometimes we miss the obvious, for as many times as I have visited him and tried to meet his needs, I never thought about a fan to relieve the unrelenting heat and keep the flies and mosquitoes away!
We have been providing groceries for the family since the tsunami. His mother, ever independent asked if instead of buying groceries, we would help her start a business so she can support herself. I suggested a road-side food stand which are very common in most villages, but not in hers. She liked the idea and for less than $500 in shelving and stock she can be up and running. Like similar arrangements, we will have her pay about $5.00 monthly as a “loan” payment and then put it into a bank account for her to use a few years in the future. She told me that she is scared about doing a business, but I told her that I have known her since the tsunami. She has raised her family, taken wonderful care of her handicapped son, and fought off a violent husband through the courts. I said, “You have no reason to be afraid of anything.” She smiled proudly.
Sunday we visited the Elder Home in Batticaloa. This wonderful facility, run by Little Sisters of the Poor, is financed solely by begging and generous donors. In January, while Maria and I visited the infirmary, they asked for some hand-held massagers to give stimulation and pain relief to the bed-ridden. I brought 3 of varying sizes. I also brought a bug-zapper so the insects would leave these pitiful patients alone. In addition, I handed out a donated walker, which we gave to an elderly woman. She immediately stood up, and walked away as fast as her twisted feet could carry her!
As an experiment, I bought a set of board games for about $6.00 to see if there would be any interest. It was a wonderful sight to see one table with four playing cards, another with four playing Ludo (Parcheesi) and a third with many gathered around watching a game of dam (checkers).
Sister Rose the Mother Superior, said she was embarrassed to ask for more, but she had an urgent request. In their infirmary they have one small bottle of oxygen. In the past, they have run out in the middle of the night. She said, “It is a very hard thing to watch our patients die because of no oxygen.” That simple statement, even now as I am writing this, had a powerful impact. What she would like is an oxygen generator so they would not have to depend on the unreliable supply lines to Colombo. Checking the Internet, I found that they cost about $3,000. I told her we do not have the funds right now for that, but that I will work on raising the money as soon as I return to America. In the meantime, we will buy some more bottles and carts so they will have a substantial reserve.
We visited Karushan, my young friend with an inoperable brain tumor. We continue to assist with his medical care, but it is only with the intention of making his life more comfortable. I brought addition flash cards to help keep his mind working. He enjoyed the challenge, but it was hard to watch a young boy in the seventh grade count on his fingers to add 6 + 4. I told him that if he can do all the cards without counting on his fingers I will give him $5.00. A classmate came by and tried the cards and of course he went very quickly thru them. On his own, he started quizzing Karushan with great patience. I told him if he helps Karushan earn his prize, I will give him a reward. He said he did not want a reward, just to help!
I always try to bring Karushan gifts to occupy his time. Last time we gave him a water tic tac toe game. After many months, he finally mastered it, and put it aside to show me. He proudly brought out the results of his hard work and I accidentally pushed the button and sent the balls flying. I thought he would be upset, but he let out a hearty laugh. I asked what he would like for his next gift and he requested a “TV game” meaning Nintendo or the like. They are very expensive here, but I told him I would ask some Americans for a used one. Anyone have an old one lying around?
Among the new projects we have taken on is the Nakamani family. They are a couple in their late 50’s. He is so stricken with asthma that he cannot work and must use his inhaler almost continuously. She has tuberculosis and is under intensive treatment. They live in pitiful conditions consisting of a small metal hut with a dirt floor. With no social service network, their plight seems hopeless. While talking yesterday, I asked what kind of work he had strength to do. He said that he had been raising a few hens and selling the eggs. As times got worse, he sold two hens and a mongoose ate the third. To add insult to injury his small hen house collapsed. Once he opened the door, getting in to help was easy. We will build him a small chicken coop, provide 15 laying hens and feed. Total cost? - $110! With that he can earn about $1.25 per day. This amount is small even by Sri Lankan standards, but for this suffering couple it will seem like a king’s ransom. The entire time I spoke with them they were both very somber. As we left, with a plan in place, they both had broad smiles on their faces
SEPTEMBER 16, 2008
Arriving at 5 AM Sunday morning, I was surprised at how nice the weather was. I thought,
“How nice. This trip, I may not have to feel like I came out of a steam bath, 24 hours a day.” Boy was I wrong. The heat has been as usual, but that just makes me feel more at home.
On behalf of a family in the US, I spent a good deal of time looking into the adoption process. I was amazed that in a country with so many broken families, the process would be so difficult. In fact it is almost impossible. In a third world country of 20 million with countless orphans due to the tsunami, war, neglect and disease, they are allowing only 150 children to be adopted overseas.
One of my main goals this trip was to arrange for permanent housing for Abishake, a 17 year old mentally handicapped boy who can neither see nor hear. He was left by his mother and without a permanent arrangement could end up in an institution. It took several months of work, and we have what I believe is the best solution for him. He will be moving into the home of the Sebamali family. We will be assisting in the construction of a one room addition where he can live. In exchange for a small monthly stipend, he will be well-cared for and loved.
I met with a local brick layer to work out a price for the addition. After quite a while, the mason said that he remembered me from the Thiruchentor refugee camp, just shortly after the tsunami. I told him that I did not remember him. When I was told that he had lost his wife and two children, my memory cleared. “Are you Anandan?!” I asked. He was. The day I met him so long ago, he was being followed by his brother, who acted as his guardian angel, for Anandan had attempted suicide several times in his extreme grief. I was very happy to meet his new wife and 15 day old baby girl. Life truly does go on!
Today, I saw another man from that time. Jegan was one of the first refugees I met in Batticaloa. He was living at the St. Mary’s college camp. I remember him so well because he had movie star looks and an engaging personality to match. A few months ago, I read about a soldier named Jegan who was killed in a roadside bomb near Batticaloa. Hoping it was not him, I went looking at an old address he had given me. I was overjoyed to find him riding the dirt road on his bicycle. He was pleased to bring me to his home and introduce me to his parents and wife of 15 days. His mother burst out laughing for somehow she too remembered me from that time.
Today, I talked at length with Mathi, a man we met last February. He is paralyzed from the waist down due to a bullet lodged in his spine. We helped him then with a soft bed to sleep on and groceries. I was amazed to see his broad smile for the first time we met he was very downcast and did not smile at all. He said that thanks to his bed he can now sleep well at night and that has made a great difference in his life. I was pleased and proud when he said that we have been the only group to come to his home and discuss his life and his needs.
He asked for assistance staring a small business, and I told him that is what we do best. (He even knew the axiom in Tamil of “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,”) He is unable to leave his home, but he is mobile with his wheelchair on the concrete floor of his house. We are now making plans to set-up a small “Communication Center.” These are small shops that provide Xeroxing, fax and phones to the villages. For our investment of about $1,000. he will have the potential to earn about $100 per month, which over here is a typical income for a working class home. We will have him pay $10 per month interest, all of which will go into a bank account (unbeknownst to him) to be used to expand his business in the future. We will monitor and support his business, but because he was a shop keeper before the shooting, I feel confident that he will make a success of this venture.
Yesterday, we met our 25 beautiful orphan girls at the Holy Family orphanage. I cannot tell you how great I felt when the first girl, seeing my arrival, ran inside and as the word spread the screams of excitement joined together until I felt like the Beatles arriving in America! We played until I dropped and as and we left, one girl asked if I could take them to the beach. I wish I had thought of that! Tomorrow, we will rent a bus and cart them all to Kallady beach, City Park and finally ice cream. No effort of any magnitude has ever been bestowed upon a more grateful group than these girls. Because orphanages are a distant memory in the US, it is hard to imagine the life these children lead.
February 10, 2008
LEAVING WITH A HEAVY HEART
Sometimes the blows come harder than normal. Yesterday we took young Karushan for an enhanced MRI of his brain. This morning we met with the neurosurgeon who said there is no hope for his tumor. They can remove a piece of it and prevent losing sight in his remaining good eye, but it will grow back over time. The part they have no access to is growing deep into his brain and is inoperable. The sad irony is that the tumor is very slow growing, but because of this it is not affected by radiation or chemotherapy. We have been helping Karushan and his grandmother since the tsunami and the more time we spend with him, the more we love him. He is a magnificent young man who finds joy in everything, even my jokes
As I broke the news to his grandmother she fought back tears, and I was glad. If she had begun to cry, my tears would have been uncontrollable.
We did have some good news at Apollo hospital. I think we have finally solved the problems that have been affecting baby Sampritha since her birth, just a few months after the tsunami. (I knew her even before she was born
as we helped her pregnant mother by re-building her toilet after the wave.) She has been plagued with high fevers, convulsions, and intestinal pains almost since she was born. Her problems have been from a combination of sources which is why the diagnosis was so difficult..
We had the family drinking well tested, even though it was newly dug after the tsunami. It was fouled with coli forms (from waste) as well as phosphates (from fertilizer). The phosphates seem to be due to run-off from a nearby rice field. The coli forms probably came from waste run-off as well as air-borne which results from the ever present cow droppings blowing about after drying in the heat.
In addition, she has worms, which have been treated unsuccessfully in the past. Her doctor at Apollo hospital suggested that she and her entire family take worm medicine every 6 months, thereby preventing cross-contamination.
We discussed with the mother the importance of everyone washing their hands with disinfectant soap and keeping Sampritha from putting her hands in her mouth after playing in the sand. And of course as discussed in an earlier blog, we are providing bottled water for the baby to keep her safe from all water borne illnesses.
I feel our involvement truly made a difference in this girl's life.
The all-night train from Batticaloa to Colombo is always an experience as the train system has not been updated since the British left in 1948! Being awoken at 2AM by a machine gun toting guard for interrogation makes falling asleep even more difficult.
Travel in Colombo is much easier than in the East. If there were a comparable number of check-points, the entire city would grind to a halt. Near the US and British embassies and the President's home, however, we went through four checkpoints within the space of ½ mile!
We met with Peter the director of the Pritipura home, in hopes he would take Abishake, the blind and deaf young man we are trying to help. He was unable to take him, but gave several suggestions of other facilities. We will check them out in the coming months.
In the hopes of being a permanent benefit to the community, we are looking into opening a laundromat. This concept does not exist in Sri Lanka and everyone thinks it would be a great success. Such a facility could give employment to the handicapped or otherwise needy and generate some much needed cash for our operations. Initial investment and all operating costs would be privately borne, so no donated Sri Lankan Help money would be used.
We are preparing to leave, and as always the to-do list is far from complete. Somehow, each time we come there is a list of about 100 things to do and the list is the same size when we leave, regardless of how much we have accomplished. Everyday, new cases are brought to us that we must investigate and if appropriate develop a plan for. But that of course is why we are here. The need is great but so is the desire. To help the
people understand our limitations, we have coined a new motto. In Tamil it is, "Periya edayam, Sinna casi." In English, "Big hearts, small pocketbooks!"
Thank you for all your support. The work is great and could not go forward without your generosity.
February 07, 2008
Each Day Like Every Other-BUSY!
Today we bought a 6 month supply of bandages and related wound care supplies to deliver to the Anandapura home Saturday. We presented about 35 stuffed animals to the 35 orphan girls at the Ozanum home. As we drove off, they
all raised their new prized possessions in the air and yelled "Thank you." Tomorrow we will deliver the block making machine to the prison.
Earlier this week, we met with the "broken-leg family.” Maria had not seen them for two years and was shocked at the change. Her first visit found the family of 6 living in a wretched tent made of palm leaves, the father crippled with his three sons, unable to work, the family supported by the mother who was exhausted and mal-nourished. What Maria found this day was a family now living in a home we have rented for them, the crippled boys now attending a special education facility we arranged for them, the daughter now lives with the Holy Family sisters, just one mile away, where she is able to lead a much more normal life. We pay just $15 a month for her care there. The father is almost back to full strength and the mother was healthy, clean, rested, and radiant. Their transformation has truly been one
of our greatest success stories.
Amidst the joys, there is the ever present sorrow to keep us humble. We visited a very poor family near Kalmunai. The drive was very slow as we were near rebel territory and had to pass through countless check points.
What we found was three children ages 11, 9, and 5, covered in flies. The two older children were blind, deaf, and virtually immobile. The youngest was blind, deaf, and losing her ability to move. To make the scene even more
tragic is the pictures we were shown of them as happy and healthy children. Once they became 5 however, the deterioration began. The mother can only watch her children slowly die before her eyes. All we could offer her today was a little cash, Deet insect spray to keep the flies away, and the promise of nutritional milk powder to sustain the children. If only Americans know how lucky they truly are!
Tomorrow we leave for Colombo on the all night train. We will be taking Karushan for his brain MRI and Sampritha for a newly focused examination. Hopefully we can get one more blog off from there.
February 06, 2008
"TEACHING MEN TO FISH"
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life!" This has been one of our guiding principles while working here in Sri Lanka.
We made our usual visit to the local prison on Saturday. The previous warden who had been so open to our assistance died a few months ago. To our relief, the new warden has been just as open to us. We once again distributed sanitary items and food supplies to the population of over 250 inmates (a ten percent increase in just 10 months!) It is hard seeing these broken men, many of whom are political prisoners with no hope of release, but the chance to shake each hand, give them a smile, and let them feel our love is priceless.
The warden asked if we could help in a more permanent way. He requested that we provide a cinder block making machine. The proceeds from making the much needed building blocks would form a fund used to provide for the inmate's children. The block machine, which costs about $550. was promised immediately. While we have been bringing temporary help to these poor men and women, I was grateful to have this opportunity to build for the future. With this machine, they can put over $2,500 a year into the children's fund! In a country like Sri Lanka that amount can work miracles.
On Sunday, we visited the Ozanum home where 25 mentally handicapped and 35 orphaned children are cared for. They put on a short dance presentation for s where the orphan girls danced on stage amidst the mentally handicapped boys who ran up after them. We played for quite a while afterwards, during which time we blew up donated balloons and hit them back and forth. Almost all 60 children ran around the grounds chasing the balloons. It is amazing how such a small, inexpensive donation can give so much joy.
On Monday, we visited two refugee camps. The Murali camp is a small group of war refugees whose homes have been destroyed and are unable to return to their land because the army has declared the area a security zone. At the Thraimudu camp we visited Sathaharan, a young man, who with his family has been homeless since the tsunami. They were one of the first families we worked with in Batticaloa in 2005 and we have been helping them on a regular
basis since. He is very studious and has just needed help with school supplies and special classes so he could qualify for college. He proudly showed us his entrance exam results and awards received for scholarship. He will be starting at the Eastern University in May. He will need some assistance with English classes before then and small help for living expenses thereafter. I look forward to seeing him as a successful business man in the coming years, knowing that our small assistance played a part in his life.
One of the greatest problems here, like most tropical areas, is flies and mosquitoes. Other than mosquito coils, they have little to fight these enemies. I will be bringing some electric "bug zappers" next trip to use in the Elder Home infirmary. If successful, these small devices could make a radical change not only in the infirmary but for many poor residents as well.
The Little Sisters of the Poor who run the Elder Home operate solely by donated money, much of it from begging on the streets themselves. They run a marvelous facility filled with great love for the abandoned poor. One man is so typical of the pain endured by tsunami survivors. His name is Reginald, and he lost his wife and two daughters to the waves. To deal with the grief of losing his entire family, he took to drinking, and did so to the point of losing his sight. As we talked to Reginald, a very old man in the next bed wept openly wallowing in his own sadness. The scene is one that will tear at our hearts for many years.
The sisters have simple needs, one of which is caskets. Each simple box costs $22., which for them is a tremendous sum. One of our staff, John Paul, is a carpenter and we are going to have him make caskets for them as they need.
Last night, I visited with Raja, a young man who asked me for help last year in taking English classes. I readily agreed, as English is the only way the Tamil people will be able to succeed in this country dominated by the Sinhalese language. Unfortunately, he was unable to take the classes because of his work schedule and his employer was unwilling to give him time off. This young man of 19 supports his widowed mother and two siblings by working from 6:30 AM to 9:30 PM, seven days a week, for a wage of about 15 cents per hour, a paltry sum, even by Sri Lankan standards. Last year they were forced to move from their home because of fierce fighting in the area. What homes that were left standing after the carnage, were later trampled by an elephant stampede. If anyone needs a helping hand it is this wonderful boy.
We are still working on a plan for Abishake, the blind, deaf, and mute boy we met last week. One possibility is to rent a small house and put a needy family in with him to provide his care in exchange for the free rent. Using Raja and his family could be a win-win situation. Much more work must be done before we can move on this however.
Every day is filled from dawn to dusk, and more so now that our departure is nearing. The above is but a small sampling of what we experience here.
February 04, 2008
Back in Sri Lanka
Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Arriving into the steamy heat of Colombo at 3 AM brings all the countless memories of four previous trips rushing back in an instant!
After attending church that morning, we spent a few hours visiting the home for the aged in Colombo. It is a wonderful place filled with well cared for and loved poor elderly with no place to go. We were honored as they sang us
a song of appreciation.
We then visited a small orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa's sisters.) These are young children found on the streets of Colombo.
On Monday, after visiting homeless and crippled on the streets of Colombo, we went to Anandapura, one of our pet projects since the tsunami. It was gratifying to have so many mentally handicapped adults come running to see
us, calling out "Uncle Jack, Auntie Maria!" We are helping this visit by purchasing a laundry basket and large wooden storage cabinet for the residents clothing.. Both are small items, but anything we bring is always needed and greatly appreciated.
Travel in the west is somewhat precarious because Fernando, our manager, is Tamil and the civil war between the government and the LTTE (Tamil rebels) is heating up greatly. As a consequence many Tamils in Colombo are stopped, questioned, and frequently jailed without charges. This plus the increased rebel presence in the south caused us to cancel travel there and limit our plans in the West. We left for a very slow and sometimes torturous drive across the country to Batticaloa. The countless check-points with their questioning, document checks and searches made travel slow, but in addition, the roads were damaged as badly as after the tsunami in many places because of the heavy monsoon season.
Army soldiers were posted every /12 mile or so for many miles, and the closer we came to the east, the closer they got and the more frequent the stops. We finally arrived late Wednesday and were truly glad to be "home" even though there are three check-points just driving about one mile through the center of town!
We spent the next day visiting those we are working with: Narushan, a profoundly retarded boy, Sanathan and Denijen, both severely retarded boys, Karushan, a young boy with a brain tumor, Sampritha, a young girl who has been battling an unknown and debilitating illness, the "broken leg family' f three crippled boys and their severely injured father, the 25 war and tsunami orphans of the Holy Family orphanage and many, many others.
As always, when news of our arrival spreads we are brought to many others in need. The most poignant cases are two we are working hard to assist: Abishake, a 16 year old by who is blind, deaf, and dumb. He has lived in his own world without any professional care. Abandoned by his mother, his world is even darker.
Sisikala is a 20 year old woman with severe cerebral palsy. Her mother who has taken care of her is hospitalized and has lost a leg to diabetes. Her grandmother is barely able to move so this beautiful girl sits alone all day with flies as her only companions.
As of today, Saturday, our action plan for those mentioned above is:
Deliver a new wheel chair to Narushan as he has outgrown the one we provided 2-1/2 years ago. (The wheelchair was donated by a local school system).
Sanathan needs his wheelchair we provided repaired. He is now living in the house we helped build for his mother and siblings and has made great strides. He is only able to say a few words, but one of them is "TV.” He loves to crawl in the sand to the neighboring homes and watch television. Fernando told him to ask Jack when he comes. The first sound he made on our arrival was "TV?" It is hard for us to say no to a request like that, so Maria and I are buying him a small set ourselves so we not use SLH fund money. Karushan's case is much more difficult. His tumor is growing and has caused him to lose sight in one eye and the other is weakening. Our US medical consultant, Dr. Brent Mabey has advised that the only way to make an informed decision is to obtain an enhanced MRI of his brain. We are working
to set that up. Unfortunately, the most likely result is that there is nothing that can be done for this marvelous boy.
We brought him a small tic-tac-toe game played in a small water tank. He as spent hours by himself trying to win. We laughed and laughed, watching him struggle and strain to get all 9 pieces in the correct spots.
Denijen spends most days in the bed we provided for him, but his family is still living in a temporary shelter as they are unable to re-build their home because it is too close to the sea. The heat in his shelter can be unbearable, so we are providing a small fan and arranging for electricity to be brought in to power it.
After so many months and trips to the hospital, Sampritha's illness has still gone undiagnosed. After reviewing her files, Dr. Mabey feels she has a parasite that has escaped detection. We will be taking her back to Apollo Hospital in Colombonext week, along with information from Dr. Mabey. In the meantime, we are setting up a regular delivery of filtered water to her home. Most of the homes are served by small private wells that are open to he air and mosquitoes and are often still poisoned from the tsunami. Clean water is the only way to keep her healthy once the parasites are removed. It is amazing, but for only $4.60 per month we can make this small contribution to the family and her survival.
At the holy Family orphanage, we delivered art books made by third graders and stuffed animals donated by sixth graders from Kent Gardens Elementary School. We are working to put the finishing touches on the playground we
provided for the girls. The work has been held up for some months by the very bad monsoon season.
As always, the list is too long to fully cover. There is so much to do and we have yet to visit the many refugee camps in the area!
March 26, 2007
Traveling Back West
Before we left, we said goodbye to many friends, including the "broken leg family" This is the family spoken of in previous blogs that consists of a partially crippled father and three sons, all in wheelchairs, with an unknown degenerative disease. We found them over a year ago living in sub-human conditions. We have rented a house for them in Seelamunai for $10 per month. We are also helping them with groceries, medical care for the boys and employment for the father. The boys, even in their difficult condition have the sweetest dispositions and never complain. Everything we do for them is truly appreciated. I took them toy cell phones and a bubble wand last week which brought continuous smiles!
We spent a very long day driving from Batticaloa to Colombo. Coming the other way, in the middle of the night, we passed through about 12 military check points. During the day this time, we stopped at over twice as many; some requiring complete vehicle and bag searches and document checks.
Wherever the main road passed by a military base (which was very frequently) the road was closed and detoured. This lead to traffic jams on one-lane, pockmarked dirt roads, never meant for this use.
The high state of security coupled with the military turning off of cell phone service has really slowed our work, but we muddle on.
I was awakened this morning at 6AM with the news that the airport had been attacked in a midnight raid by the LTTE rebel forces. Flights were canceled and I worried all day about getting home. My men, Fernando and John Paul (both Tamil) were even more worried because getting home now means going through all those checkpoints with angry and revenge minded soldiers. Having me in the car always eased tensions a bit. Now they on there own.
Colombo was on high alert in many areas, and roads were closed throughout, causing many traffic jams. We reduced our schedule to a bare minimum so as to keep off the roads and avoid sensitive areas.
We spent several hours at Apollo Hospital with Sampritha and her mother Sumangala. The good news is that Sampritha does not have any congenital heart problems. The bad news is that she has a lung infection which may have been going for as much as one year. The doctors have put her on antibiotics for 3 months and a strong vitamin regimen. They acknowledged that recovery will be slow because of the bad living conditions in Batticaloa, but at least she finally has a diagnosis.
Apollo is the best hospital in the country and most of the ex-patriots as well as upper-class citizens make use of it. Even the best is unbelievably cheap. Today's work-up which consisted of a cardio echogram, blood work, consultation with a cardiologist, chest x-ray, and consultation with a pediatrician cost the whopping sum of $53!
On the way to the airport, we stopped by Ragama Chest Hospital. This is where Maria and I took Milton for his final days. (Milton is the man we found dying on the streets of Colombo last year. Please see previous blogs for his amazing story.) Maria and I want Milton to be remembered in death, even if he lived as one of the unknown masses on the streets. I contracted to have a small headstone placed at his graveside, which Maria and I are paying for as our final tribute to him.
Because it was imperative for Fernando and John Paul to travel during the daylight, we stopped by the Anandapura home for only a few minutes. It was still very gratifying to have so many mentally-handicapped adults yell out "Hello Jack" and come to me for a hi-five. One of my favorites, Sunil said in perfect Queen's English, "Please give Auntie Maria my best regards." I never heard him utter more than a few words before! It is amazing how easy it is to make a powerful impression in this country.
We went to visit Nalama today and take her to the eye doctor, when it became clear that she needed so much more than glasses. We went to the Home for the Aged, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a wonderful group of nuns who dedicate themselves to the elderly. They were a great help to us last year and once again offered their services. They will take Nalama for the rest of her life at no charge. The only problem is that they are already overcrowded due to the great influx of refugees. Nalama is now at the top of the waiting list. She was so grateful when she heard that she will be going. Her crippled arms lifted up in thanks and she broke into a broad toothless smile.
I am grateful that the Lord used me to help this wonderful spirit. She has begged on the streets of Batticaloa for years and everyone was so used to seeing her that they never thought of new ways to help.
We brought rice and cooking utensils to the 32 families at Dr. Kannan’s. It is so heart-warming to enter a refugee camp and have old and young alike come up spontaneously to greet us. Helping people who are surviving at the subsistence level is beyond words to describe.
In a hurried final day, we went to check on progress at the playground and play with the orphans. We also went to the Ozanam to bring balls and play with the 30 mentally handicapped children. Having those children remember me after a year is gratifying.
We made final arrangements to take Sampritha to Apollo Hospital in Colombo. Her appointment with the cardiologist is Monday morning. Her parents and grandparents are very nervous as her fever and heavy coughing have continued for almost two weeks now.
We leave for Colombo in the morning. With all the military check points, it should take about ten hours.
At our very first camp visit shortly after the tsunami in 2005, the children were very slow to respond to our antics. It was not until Cindy, playing “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” and promptly fell on her derriere did everyone, guards included, laughed heartily. The ice was broken and from then on the children were fully engaged. I do not need to do a pretend fall as I trip on my own feet regularly. At the Thiraimadu camp, I did such a trip and after removing the 10 boys who piled on, a few dozen sand fleas took up residence in my clothes. Let’s just say that the little blood suckers got their share of me!
Thursday morning we took greatly needed sanitary supplies to the prison. The most rewarding moment came when one of the few inmates who spoke English said, “God bless you. You are doing a wonderful thing for us.” To shake the hands and look in the eyes of each of these wretched souls is a heart-rending experience.
The conditions there are very difficult. Hardened criminals are mixed with those awaiting trial. The superintendent, Gunasekaran is truly concerned for the welfare of his inmates. He has improved their condition during his five year tenure. It is because of that concern that he allows us to come in to hand out supplies and snacks, and chat with each of the 215 prisoners, including 3 nursing mothers with their babies. Last fall we drilled a well to provide year round water to the prisoners. (The old well runs dry during the long dry season. Money was short then and we were unable to provide the well pump. As summer approaches we have no choice and the pump must be installed in a few weeks.
We visited the Zahira camp today. This is a very large camp in the center of Batticaloa. 1-1/2 years ago I visited tsunami refugees there, now it is refugees from war. There are many children and it is very hard to keep almost one hundred organized. They are sometimes aggressive, which I am sure is due to having their world turned upside down.
War refugees, unlike those from the tsunami, have little hope of recompense. Their homes and fields have been destroyed and the government barely acknowledges their existence. They rely on the international organizations to do for them. Those in large visible camps such as Zahira receive decent help. For those living off the beaten path in small camps it is another story.
At Dr. Kannan’s we visited with the 32 families living with him and played with the 22 children. To my surprise they had only a one day supply of rice. While we are not large enough to regularly supply bulk food needs, we cannot leave them alone either. We are bringing a one week supply of rice today which will buy us time while we call the many NGO’S (non-governmental agencies) and enlist their support.
Work on the playground for the 25 orphan girls began today. I was able to negotiate a substantial discount on the playground equipment form Sathyadasan, who gratefully remembered that we had helped get his family of out the camps two years ago. When true principles of charity are exercised it is very rewarding.
We met a beautiful woman begging on the streets today. Her name is Nalama which means “lovely mother.” She is in her seventies and cruelly deformed. Her arms and back are so twisted that she is barely able to move. She has a sweet spirit and was very grateful for our help. She told us that she is unable to see without glasses, so we will take her to the eye doctor tomorrow.
March 22, 2007
3rd update from Sri Lanka
The villages where we spent so much time and effort are hardly recognizable now. Nice new houses are everywhere. While this is encouraging, but at the same time, seeing houses _everywhere_ is discouraging. Many international NGO’s came in and literally threw money at the problem. Many people with land that had never been developed received homes saying theirs had been washed away. Some inflicted damage to their homes to get more money. Others had foundations under construction from before the tsunami who again said the house had been washed away. All of these schemes we had come across ourselves and declined help. Unfortunately some large international organizations with great amounts of money can be indiscriminate and wasteful. These problems and scams are not peculiar to Sri Lanka, of course. We need only look to New Orleans to see some of the same.
For this reason, we have always worked to distinguish the truly needy and carefully prioritize. Fernando and John Paul, our men on the ground have lived here for years and know the people and their stories. They are invaluable in this aspect.
And now for the rest of the story,,,,
Traveling through Navalady and Dutch Bar, two areas that were obliterated because of their low ground and proximity to the sea, are almost unchanged. After two years less than ten percent of re-construction has occurred. Part of this may be due to so much money going to other villages as well as reticence on the part of the owners to move back so close to the sea. Knowing some of what they have seen, I cannot blame them, but for now thousands are living in limbo. It is poignant that while home construction is scarce, numerous monuments to the dead have been completed; many giving names of each.
Prices for everything have gone sky high. Demand for building materials and workmen have made them expensive and scarce.
Work on the playground for the tsunami and war orphans begins today. We have been blessed to be able to start so soon. (Most of the public playgrounds in town are no longer available as the army uses them for encampments.) For about $2,500 we are building what will be a beautiful 4,000 square foot fully enclosed park. The perimeter walls and fences will be painted green with children’s murals. We are installing a slide, triple swing set, merry-go-round, see-saw, and climbing pyramid. There will be room for a badminton court as well. I look forward to playing here myself when I return! This small investment of time and money will bring such joy to these young girls, who have seen so much suffering and loss.
We went to buy supplies for the refugee camps last night in Kattankudy (a Muslim town which serves as the “shopping mall” for everyone within 15 miles), but power outages and military blockades made the trip fruitless. One soldier on a dark back road, carrying an AK-47 flatly told us to “Go Home.” We said, “Yes, Sir” and then took another route!
March 21, 2007
2nd Report from Sri Lanka
Too bad the movie “Pay It Forward” was already made, because I have just experienced the real life version.
Shortly after the tsunami, we helped rebuild the home and office of Kannan, an auyervedic doctor in the village of Seelamunai. I learned this week that he has taken several refugee families in to live on his land. When I went by today to see what help we could offer, I found 31 families consisting of over 120 people! He told me that he felt obligated to help these refugees because Sri Lankan Help was the only group to help him in his time of need! That is powerful stuff!
His home is not near any main roads, so few know of the refugees other than the local government. They are supplying a few basic food needs but nothing else. In fact for 120 people living in the tropics, they sent only 12 mosquito coils, enough to last about 3 hours!
Our immediate plan is as follows:
Build a toilet facility to accommodate everyone;
Provide mosquito coils to each family;
Provide powdered milk for the children
And of course play with the young ones until we drop!
I met with Karushan today. He is a young tsunami victim with a brain tumor. He has a strong, sweet spirit and he is filled with love. His tumor has started growing again and now that he has lost the sight in one eye, the doctors want to operate. Brain surgery at best is very difficult. In a country like Sri Lanka, there cannot be much hope for a positive outcome.
We had built a kitchen and small road-side stand for his grandmother (his sole caretaker) to earn a few dollars. She now spends so much time caring for Karushan that she could not operate the shop. Wisely, she has rented it out and now makes a small living, while still having time to care for Karushan. She is a good example of the Lord’s parable of the servants and the talents.
Power outages have been regular which hampers the work greatly and with only a few more days in Batticaloa, I am feeling the pressure to get more done. The work truly is never-ending.
March 20, 2007
Back to Sri Lanka
I like to plan my travel to Sri Lanka so I arrive early Sunday morning. After cleaning up, and going to Church, I spend the rest of this :travel" day walking the streets of Colombo, visiting with and doing what I can for the seemingly endless steam of needy. Our travels have been a bit nerve wracking as my helper John Paul doe not have his national identity card. In a country under martial law and with military checkpoints often less than a mile apart, each stop was a cause for anxiety. At one, near the American Embassy, we received the usual strong rebuke and threats. After learning that I was an American, here to help the needy, the soldier became very friendly as asked if I could help a poor beggar woman and her daughter across the street. They come every day where her daughter works on her schoolwork while the mother begs. He asked me to do what I could. This country is such a study in contrasts! The people are universally warm and loving throughout. In the military realm, however, they can be unbending, brutal and domineering.
We visited with Peremalatha the beggar woman for a long time. Her husband was killed three years ago and begging has become her lot, of necessity. Even in her desperate need, she asked only help for her daughter, Surangi. In this country, steeped in British traditions, the proper school equipment is essential. We took the girl on for her what must have seemed to be a shopping spree in paradise. Her eyes were wide with wonder. We bought her two school uniforms, shoes, three pairs of socks, a backpack, notebooks, English readers, pens, pencils, and other supplies. We came upon a wall filled with dolls and I told her to pick one. She could not have had a bigger smile if I told her she won the lottery! These events did not change their hard lot in life, but for $15 we did make a difference to that girl, that just may help her succeed in school and lead to a higher education. After a day of these types of experiences, we headed out for the all night drive to Batticaloa in the east. Traveling by night reduces the number of military checkpoints and the risk coming across military patrols. It is also very efficient, as we do not lose any productive time by travel. We arrived about 6 AMand hit the ground running. During visits on Monday, I discovered a small orphanage for young girls who lost their parents to the tsunami or war. They are bright and fun-loving girls and we spent several hours playing various games. What they need right now is a playground as they have nowhere to exercise and have fun. (Fun for this type of child is a rare thing) Thus we have evaluated a small patch of land that we will clear and cover with sand. We will work with a tsunami victim named Sathyadasan whose house we re-built. He now has an iron work shop. He will fabricate a slide, climbing pyramid, merry-go-round, see-saw, and swing set for the orphan's playground.
Seeing how happy they were last night with a few balls to play with, I know this is a worthwhile project.
We visited another family for whom we built a toilet last year. They are wonderful people, but have been hit by many struggles. Their daughter, Sumangala, who was 7 months pregnant during the tsunami battled cancer as a girl. Her father spent all his money on her treatments and they are struggling to raise themselves. The tsunami of course dealt them a blow, which we were able to mitigate. But now, the young child, Sampritha, born just after the tsunami appears to have serious heart problems. She was treated last year and deemed "cured,” but the condition persists. I have consulted with a doctor in the States who has given me a list of various tests she needs. He will evaluate the results, but right now he feels it is very serious. What adds to their anxiety is that this is the only child Sumangala can bear as she has developed complications, making pregnancy impossible. My plan is to take Sampritha to Colombo, to ApolloHospital, for the needed tests and a consult with a cardiologist. It is very hard to leave these families that we have helped while they continue to struggle.
Today, Tuesday, I will begin visiting some of the war refugee camps. It is ironic that as re-building from the tsunami moves forward, the old camps are now filled again, this time not due to nature’s wrath, but man’s.
February 10, 2006
One of the few things that transcends borders is bureaucracy! It took 6 hours just to get Milton out of Apollo Hospital and in a transport to Velesara ChestHospital. Even a patient they do not want must go through piles of paperwork to get out!
He is on his way. We will shortly meet him there to sign him in as my ward. (I now have the honor of being the legal guardian of a 70-year-old Sri Lankan man!) If all holds true to plan, he will be with the Sisters of the Poor within a month.
Throughout most of my time working on the tsunami, I have had the faithful service of Sebamali John Paul. In Batticaloa he is my tuk-tuk driver. In other parts of the country he is my constant companion and friend. And always he is my instructor in Tamil and me his in English. He, like the rest of his family, has a big heart and great compassion for the needy. On Sundays his family spends several hours at the Ozanum Home for mentally handicapped. Each week, he and his father do free repairs at the Aged Home. After the tsunami, the government paid workers $6.00 to dig a grave. John Paul and his father did the work for many days, at no charge.
We Are Coming Home
The two weeks have flown by and even now we are rushing to get all of our work done before we fly out at 3:00 AM. Maria has had a great experience. She describes her feelings as follows: 'I love Sri Lankan food and I love Sri Lankan people!" (Did she really mean it in that order!?)
Thanks to all those who have prayed for us and helped with our kids while we were away.
See you soon.
Last year I walked through a devastated area called Navalady. It was once home to over 1,200 people of whom 800 died. The ground was washed clean in many areas so that it is impossible to tell that any had ever lived there before.
We took a small boat to the area as there is still no access by road due to tsunami destruction. What we found was a few families living in poorly built shacks, but by and large the area is still deserted.
We met a man named Selvim who was featured in a New York Times article last year. He was running from the wave with his four children in his arms. The wave overcame him and all his young children were pulled from his arms.
Farther on we saw a shrine built by a man named Mahesan who lost his wife and five children as well as other family members. Photos of each were on display along with flowers and other mementos. All of his family except two young sons were gathered together on that Sunday morning. When the two boys heard the roar of the wave and screams of
the residents they ran home. The father shut the doors and windows of their home, with all inside, hoping the wave would pass them by. He alone survived to tell the tale. It is impossible to imagine the agony this man now lives every day.
We met a priest today who heard of our work and wanted to meet us. He has seen the work of large NGO’s but never heard of an organization that catered to the needs of individuals. Since our inception, it has been our mission to fill the needs that are too small for the international organizations or government to see. Shoes for children, medicine for the elderly, wheelchairs for the handicapped, help in starting a small business. The great part about our work is that we work with so many individuals. We do not just pull into a camp and drop a load of material and then leave. We have the chance to meet the sad, the lonely, and the sick; to hear their stories, bring a little cheer, and make life-long friends. Maria has coined a slogan which sums up our operation perfectly – HELPING SRILANKA, ONE INDIVIDUAL AT A TIME!
Since June, our operations have been handled here by our great manager Joseph Fernando. He is fluent in English, Singhalese, and Tamil. He is smart, inventive and most importantly – compassionate. He cannot see a child in need without stopping to offer help. It is because of his great efforts that we have been so successful and efficient in
reaching the truly needy.
BACK TO COLOMBO
We leave today (Tuesday) and head back to Colombo. There we hope to make arrangements for Milton, provide a hand-crank wheelchair to the cripple man at the Fort train station, deliver supplies to the Anandapura home, and tie up all loose ends we have been working on since our arrival.
Hopefully we can get to a computer before we head home this weekend.
February 09, 2006
We drove from Batticaloa through Kandy, the ancient capital and on to Colombo, about 12 hours in all. Upon arriving in Colombo at 7 PM, we immediately went to Apollo Hospital to see Milton. As we left, two Little Sisters of the Poor arrived, coming to see Milton as well! The Mother Superior in Batticaloa with whom we met on Sunday, prevailed upon the sisters in Colomboto visit Milton and consider admitting him to their care. (We had asked her for a special exception but she felt Colombo was better than taking him east, because it would keep Milton in a Singhala speaking facility.) The waiting list in Colombo is many dozens long and with only six of their residents dying last year, it would normally take years to gain admission. The sisters were very impressed with Milton and the miraculous and tragic events surrounding his life over the past weeks.
We visited with the mother superior, Sister Lourdes the next morning and she agreed to take Milton. We were so happy, for we could not leave Sri Lankawithout knowing he was safe. Their facility is even more amazing than the one we were so impressed with in Batticaloa. Milton will spend his few remaining days surrounded by tender loving care. There was one condition, however. Milton’s lung disease appears to be tuberculosis and the sisters cannot take him until he is no longer contagious. About one month of hospital-administered antibiotics is required to get to this point. We felt that this would not be a problem as we could have Milton stay at Apollo for this period, which would be just three more weeks. We went to the hospital to discuss our plan with his doctor.
To our surprise he told us that they could no longer keep Milton. He has not been very cooperative and the nurses do not want to deal with him. Milton was very agitated when we first brought him – who would not be after his ordeal? but he had always responded well to us. This may be because we are able to communicate with him. Much of the staff at Apollo is from India and they do not speak Singhala. This could very well be the reason for much of his confusion.
With us he has always calm. Today for instance, he was meek as a lamb as Maria fed him a little lunch. Milton has been so grateful for Maria’s love and attention. He always smiles broadly when she enters his room and puts his hands in an attitude of prayer as a traditional sign of love and respect. (Last night, the hospital had his hands tied and over and over, he tried unsuccessfully to bring them together for Maria. It was a tender and sad sight.)
With nowhere to turn, we called Mother Theresa’s sisters in Colombo. They recommended the Velesara Chest Hospital, a 1-1/2 hour drive from the city. We went immediately and conditions were as expected for a public hospital. They were very kind however, and agreed to take Milton tomorrow morning. We immediately went back to Apollo to make arrangements for his release and ambulance transport to Velesara. The ordeal is not yet over, but I think we can leave now.
February 08, 2006
Heading south, I was at first encouraged by seeing a great deal of re-construction. The farther south we traveled, away from the famous resort areas, however, it became clear that little had changed since my visit in June. Our friends in a small village in Weligama were in the same squalid conditions as well.
Originally, the government would not allow any construction within 200 meters of the ocean. They reduced that set-back to 100 meters in the west. Very recently, they reduced this even further to 60 meters. This now allows about 10 of the most severely effected homes to be re-built. Unfortunately, many of the international NGO’s have all left, so there is no money to do the work. These 10 are now stuck and the 7 in front of them, closer than the 60 meters, have no hope of reconstruction, only removal to another part of the country. This is a bitter solution for families that have made their living by the sea for generations.
We have always tried to be equitable in our dealings with the refugees, so we would therefore have to provide 10 homes at about $5,000 each. At the present, this is well beyond our means.
We spent several hours playing with the children, talking to the parents about their losses and seeing where we can be of service. It was a small consolation, but we provided kitchen tables for 17 families so at least they can eat dinner with some dignity. Upon leaving we were given a photo of a young boy who died during the tsunami. His mother asked that we enlarge the picture for her wall. This is a small thing to do, but one that I know will bring her great comfort.
On farther to Matara, we met with my friend Reverend Vipassi, a most unusual Buddhist monk. In addition to his spiritual duties in the community, he is principal of a school and has organized his own NGO to provide services to the village with funding from the Asian Development Bank…all the while working on his PhD in comparative religion!
He brought to us a mother and son who lost their home to the tsunami. The mother is very ill and the son has committed his life to her care. Unable to work because of the constant attention she needs, they have no hope of leaving refugee status. Rev. Vipassi knows them personally and after extensive interviews feels they are a worthy candidate for our help. It was hard not to be moved as this humble man spoke of the son’s nobility and self-sacrifice. We are looking into renting a small home for them in Matara at about $30 per month.
After Matara, we continued on our slow and sad journey around the coast and on to Batticaloa.
More Great Work...
There is now way to fully describe the great feelings of joy that we feel here at times, just as there is no way to adequately describe the great lows that are possible. What makes the agony and ecstasy of Sri Lanka so intense is that often the highs and lows are felt within a few moments of each other!
On Tuesday, we returned to the General Hospital to pay Milton a visit, only to be told that he was discharged! We said that was impossible as he could not even walk. The nurse showed me where he signed his discharge papers. The paper had a scrawl mark about 4” long that resembled what a child would do...or a man too weak to hold a pen.
Discouraged, we left the hospital and acting on Maria’s inspiration, split up and searched the neighborhood. We found Milton about 1-1/2 blocks away from the hospital, lying on the sidewalk, virtually as we had found him two days before. The hospital had carried him out and placed him there to fend for himself. I won’t go into the array of emotions we felt, but rage at the inhumanity was the primary.
He had received no food or water during the two days he was in General Hospital and was extremely weak. Making calls, I found that there is no social service system for the old or infirm. No one could offer any help.
My feelings hit the roof as I watched a nurse from the hospital walk near, look our way, and then walk on. She was soon followed by a police officer who did the same. The parallels to the parable of the Good Samaritan were too real to miss.
I called the local branch President of the LDS church, who came immediately. Together we decided that we would take Milton to the best hospital in Colombo. We drove him in our van and just as two days earlier, Milton rested in my lap, again sleeping for a few moments of peace. At Apollo Hospital, Milton was treated with love and care. (It did not hurt that the attending surgeon was a piano student of the Branch President and the chief resident married to his dentist!)
The initial diagnosis was peritonitis because of his very tender abdomen. The hospital needed approval and payment in advance. The surgery and time in the hospital was expected to cost just $1,000! We authorized any care that was required.
The next morning we visited Milton, who was very agitated. He was thirsty as no water was given because of the pending surgery. His agitation was a good sign however, as it showed the IV’s were providing necessary fluids and nourishment.
He was also angry at the nurses, because he did not like their gentle nature. He said that he was used to nurses such as those at the General Hospital treating him meanly!
After examinations by several specialists, his diagnosis is quite different than expected. He has lost one lung to lung disease. He has poor bladder and kidney function, an obstructed small intestine and fluid collection in the abdomen. The doctors felt much of this is due to dehydration and nutrition. They agreed to keep him until we returned from the east. (At $20 per day for a bed in the best hospital in the country, I may stay a few days myself!)
When we return, we will work on permanent arrangements for Milton so he may spend his final days in peace, security, and dignity.
February 04, 2006
Making Our Rounds
On Saturday, we visited the Kamalanathan family. This tragic family has three sons who all became crippled within a short time of each other. Their father, a fisherman, lost his boat in the tsunami and turned to harvesting coconuts for a meager living. His inexperience lead to a fall from a tree and a leg, horribly broken in several locations. With four now crippled, the parents sent their remaining young son to an orphanage because they could care for him. While their home was not destroyed by the tsunami, it should have been. It was a small squalid tent made of palm fronds. Dark, leaking during the rain, and barely able to sleep the family, it is a heart-rending site.
After spending a few hours with them we developed the following plan of action:
Move the family into a rental house in town, close to the fish market; Help the father start a business as a fish merchant;
Assist the father with improved medical attention in the hope that he may walk again; Present the cases of the children to some American doctors to see if they may have any diagnosis and suggested treatment. Continue our support with monthly groceries and transportation.
After numerous other visits, monsoon rains hit in the afternoon, and virtually shut everything down due to impassable roads and power outages.
Sunday was a typical packed day. First thing in the morning we visited the Batticaloa Aged Home, hoping not only to bring a little comfort the elderly there, but also see if it would be appropriate for Milton.
What we found amazed us. This facility, run by only 7 nuns from the Little Sisters of the Poor rivaled anything in the US. The 80 residents were happy, well cared for, kept busy with meaningful tasks and treated with dignity and respect, all at no charge. The mission of this religious order is to care for the elderly poor until they die. They have no government support and in fact earn much of their needed funding by going door to door, much as their founder did 170 years ago.
We then went to the Batticaloa Prison and met with Gunasegaran the warden. He was a bit surprised to see us. He indicated that no one had ever come and asked to help. He was a sincere man and seemed truly interested in the welfare of the inmates. He suggested that we bring personal care items for each of the 207 inmates. (The prison does not supply such things and those without family support have gone years without brushing their teeth or taking a shower with soap.) He also asked that we help with their water supply. They have a well, which is adequate during the rainy season, but during the dry time, there is only water in the morning. The site of almost 300 persons (inmates and guards) without water was hard to fathom. We agreed to investigate digging a deep well for them.
We then went to visit many of our friends in the villages by the sea, so badly affected during the tsunami. I was glad to see than many NGO's have pitched in to build new homes for the residents. In fact more work has been done there than anywhere else I have seen in the country. Still, only half of those here who lost homes have been helped and there is much more to do other than construction.
Suttchata is mother of two who lost her husband in the wave. We built her a toilet last summer. She has asked for help in starting a road side store (very common in Sri Lanka) so she can earn a few dollars each day. She also asked for a bicycle to ride her children to school or town. For $100. we can make such a tremendous impact for this poor woman.
My friend Amertham is an elderly fisherman we helped last year with a special lamp to help him catch prawns. He has had a heart attack and now developed a slipped disk. In a few days, we will be taking him to the GV clinic for care and providing him with a mattress so he may sleep without so much pain from his back.
Just as last year, walking through the villages brings out friends, onlookers, and petitioners for help. And just like last year, we must often say no because the needs far outweigh means.
We then went to visit Karushan, a young boy we are helping. He has just recently returned from Colombo after undergoing radiation treatment for his brain tumor. He is a wonderful boy with a great smile, which does
not show any sign of the suffering he has endured.
We then went to the Thiraimadu Refugee Camp. Residents of all Batticaloa camps have been moved here. The site is several kilometers from town, which makes working and shopping very hard. I was very impressed with the camp. While it houses about 1,000 families, it is clean, each family has a temporary house, and there are adequate toilets for all. We visited many former residents of the Thiruchenthor camp where we spent many hours last year.
I met a man who we have been helping with asthma medication since the tsunami. He came up to me and cried on my chest. I was not sure what was happening until I was told that he was so happy and grateful for our help. It is amazing that only $3.00 of medication each month could evoke such strong feelings.
We have met many handicapped children this trip, but none was cuter than Karushan. He is a 7 year old boy at the camp with cerebral palsy. We played catch for a long time as he struggled to use his withered arm, laughing all the while. During games such as Duck, Duck, Goose, played with all the children, he held his own, offering loud happy laughs.
We began Monday with an early visit to Denijen and his family. Denijen is a severely handicapped boy we have helped with a wheelchair, clothes, food, and the like. Helping the family has been difficult because the father has legal troubles and sometimes seems un-trustworthy. We tried to rent a home for them last year so Denijen could leave the camp, but the father resisted.
They are still living in a tent and asked for a new house, but we felt it best to limit our help to direct aid for Denijen. We are providing a bed with sides so he will not fall, as well as diapers and powdered milk.
We then visited Pathima a young girl we have been helping for a few months. Through difficulty of translation, I thought she had leukemia, but we found out that she has a rare blood disorder called thallasemia. There is no cure for her condition which requires frequent blood transfusions and medications in Colombo. This was a sad visit as her
16 year old sister died just two seeks ago. Her mother is grieving deeply, but must carry-on due to the care Pathima requires.
After visiting another boy with a brain tumor and two small handicapped children, we returned to Batticaloa prison to deliver the requested supplies.
Prisons at their best are difficult places to visit, but seeing so many young boys in such conditions, without hope truly moved our souls. Many of them were political prisoners without hope of release. It was great to shake each hand and speak a few words. It may seem trite, but I really believe that just a few kind words and a smile can lift lonely men such as these, if only for a few moments.
We handed out body soap, clothing detergent soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and boxes of cookies. Not to leave the guards out, we delivered cookies to them as well.
The warden was very helpful and genuinely grateful. He told me that normally such a visit would never be allowed, but he took a chance and let us in.
We took Amertham to visit a new orthopedic surgeon who will now take good care of the elderly gentleman.
I also received word from Apollo hospital that Milton has a tumor in his bladder. We will meet the doctors upon our return to Colombo in a few days and try to decide with Milton the best course of action.
Due to politically related violence, a "hartal" was called, hereby all business in Batticaloa is halted in protest. This made
work difficult, and prevented us from achieving all of our goals, but such is life in Sri Lanka.
January 31, 2006
On Monday we visited the Anandapura Home and Tuesday the Prittipura Home. Both are amazing facilities that cater to the mentally and physically handicapped. The residents of Prittipura were moved to Anandapura after the tsunami and that was what we first visited last January. Back then, we found a facility bulging with double its intended capacity.
In Prittipura I saw residents for the first time since the tsunami. It felt great for some of the young men to put their hands in the air, looking for a high-five! If not much else, Scott and I have left a legacy of high fives and noogies throughout the island!
The residents are so well taken care of that they rival if not exceed care in the US. The needs are great, however. Anandapura has asked for help with monthly supplies of food (100 kg of dhal, 75 kg of sugar, cans of tuna, etc.) as well as 32 sy of material to make dresses.
Prittipura, which houses 80 residents has a tremendous need for diapers (300 per day) as well as standing tables for residents who can stand, but not walk on their own.
Some of the residents are real orphans, but most have been abandoned by their families, often on the advice of their doctors! They often tell the mothers to leave the baby on a bench at the hospital and the police will deal with him!
As wonderful as these two homes are, they are some of the very few for the handicapped in the country. This leaves many, many without care, such as we have found in Batticaloa. After these visits, I am more committed to getting our school for the severely handicapped started in the East.
Between visits we have been working to find supplies, equipment etc. to fulfill various commitments.
We leave tomorrow for the South to visit our friends at camps in Moratuwa, Weligama, and Matara.
More miracles to come!
Made it to Sri Lanka
We were not in Sri Lanka more than a few hours before the first miracle happened! After church Sunday morning, we went to the Fort train station to look for a beggar I met there last January. He was a wonderful man with such deformed legs that he walked on his hands. On the way, we saw a man lying on the sidewalk. We stopped to visit with him, only to discover that he was almost naked and in serious distress. He had sores on his body, his head ached, and his abdomen was in intense pain. No one around could offer much help. Maria stroked his head, brought him some soda to drink and said over and over, 'Oh sweetie, it will be alright."
After getting permission from the police we wrapped him in a blanket and carried him to the General Hospital. He could not talk much, but he asked us to tell the doctor to give him an injection that would let him die. As we drove, I cradled him in my arms so he would not bounce too much. He fell asleep with a sweet, peaceful look on his face.
His name is Milton Hattai and he is blind. He was walking in the area when he tripped and hit his head. As he lay in distress, robbers stole his clothes and whatever possessions he had. We do not know how long he had lain there.
At the hospital, we got an introduction to emergency hospitals in Sri Lanka. The conditions were poor at best, but because we were Americans and stood close by, he got very quick attention. An x-ray showed a fractured skull, but nothing else could be determined. He was admitted to a ward where the doctors are trying to figure out his intense
abdominal pain. The wards are literally filled with patients suffering from accident wounds, all lying on steel gurneys, all in pain and all needing comfort. We made friends with an attendant who keeps and eye on
him and helps us during subsequent visits.
While we were in the emergency room a young girl was brought in by ambulance, screaming and flailing wildly. She had torn out the IV put in by the ambulance crew, so she had much blood on her arm. Little help was offered, so Maria stepped in to take charge. She sang to her softly to calm her down, while I held her arm during insertion of a new IV and afterward to ensure she would not remove it. We told the nurses she was dehydrated and needed fluid fast. While the IV was taking effect, we stroked her softly. Between the IV and Maria's singing she quieted down. Her parents arrived a short time later. I told Maria that the care was not very good, but where else could two foreign strangers come into an emergency room and give orders for medical care!
Back to the poor man at the train station. We did find him on a side street and he did remember me from last year. He has a wonderful spirit and has struggled greatly since he was born. He asked for a hand cranked three-wheeled chair so he can get around. We found one for only $80.
There is so much need, almost unimaginable from what we see in America, yet with small resources, so much can be done.
January 26, 2006
Back to Sri Lanka
Maria and I are heading out this Friday for our team’s third relief trip. We will be on the ground about 2 weeks with a very tight agenda. In addition to the supplies we intend to buy in country, we are bringing three children’s wheelchairs for a family in Batticaloa where all three boys are crippled from an unknown childhood disease. In addition their father is crippled after a fall while harvesting coconuts.
We will be visiting 2 facilities for the handicapped north of Colombo, traveling south to visit camps in Moratuwa, Weligama, and Matara. While in the west we have meetings with generator suppliers, working to get the best deal and fulfill our promise to help the Anandapura Home. We will also be going to a Colombohospital to visit a young man we are helping while he receives kidney treatment.
We then head east to Batticaloa. We will be visiting a large camp there as well as all the villages in the area. Heading south, we will visit effected families in Kattankudy, Kalmunai and Thirrukovil. While in Batticaloa we will pay a visit to the main prison. We have been given permission to bring gifts and supplies to these forgotten people.
In Kattankudy, we have a sad duty, as we must visit the family of Pathima, a young tsunami victim with leukemia we have been assisting. Last week her older sister died unexpectedly, leaving the parents bereft.
There are many effected families we have “adopted” throughout the tsunami affected coasts We are helping with regular groceries, medical supplies, transportation, educational opportunities, and the like.
And so the work goes on…
February 17, 2005
FINAL REPORT FROM THE GROUND
THE TSUNAMI FIRT-HAND
After having seen almost a month of constant destruction; after talking to countless who have lost family members; after seeing the graves, the places of death, the still pained and anguished faces, I thought I was hardening to it all – until this afternoon. I was invited into a wealthy man’s home for a short visit. On the TV was playing a video, becoming prevalent throughout the country. No still photograph can impart the agony the way this video did. To quiet strains of plaintive music were shown dozens of family members at makeshift morgues screaming together in their individual agony, their arms flailing in desperation. The dead being placed into mass graves. A father carrying his baby to the cemetery. Corpses pulled from the wreckage by friends and neighbors. All the scenes were filmed in the Batticaloa area. I have walked in these same locations, spoken with these very people, seen the mass graves, now only marked by a white flag, stood in the school halls where just a few weeks ago these anguished parents came to collect their dead. These scenes and countless more, all brought the tsunami to life like never before.
We had discussed amongst ourselves how we have seen only a sanitized version of the disaster. No corpses, no rescue efforts; even the grieving are able to offer brief smiles. This video is a stark reminder of the magnitude of the pain this country has felt and was a reminder to me of my past pains, for each time I saw a father weeping as he held his dead child, I saw myself. Each time I saw a mother with the blank stare of lonely grief, I saw Maria.
I will be bringing copies home for those who wish to gain a better understanding, as I have been able to do today.
TIME TO COME HOME
I leave tomorrow night for Colombo on the midnight train. After a short time there I head south for the last time to deliver supplies (including material for 200 school uniforms, bulk mosquito repellant and pump sprayers). I will sadly depart Sunday morning at 3:00 AM but look forward to seeing my family and friends, though I feel like I now have both on two sides of the world.
I love you Maria.
February 16, 2005
Viewing the Damage
A SAD AND BEAUTIFUL SITE
While death and destruction are all around, I came upon a particularly haunting site today. As I was walking throughout the lagoon area looking for wells to pump, I saw a leveled house where all eight people inside died. Seven were the immediate family of a women described in an earlier blog. The eighth was a visitor. Their bodies were found across the lagoon on a small strip of land. There, they had been placed in hastily dug graves. Both locations had a spectral yet reverential aura.
A COUNTRY OF OPPOSITES
Yesterday, after a long court battle among 9 couples for the parental rights to a baby that was found after the Tsunami, the baby was awarded to his rightful parents based on blood tests. The grief of the eight other couples after having lost their own children to the Tsunami prolonged this sad spectacle.
The strong desire of these parents to be reunited with their child is in stark contrast with the painful experience of some of the handicapped children at Ozanum, whose parents have abandoned them.
SRI LANKAN HOMES UPDATE
We currently have 58 reconstructions, repair or temporary housing projects on the books. 11 projects have been completed, with 3 more scheduled for completion this week. That means 20 families and 72 individuals out of the camps. If we do just these 58 projects, 69 families and 262 individuals will be moved back into proper living conditions in the next few months.
None of these 58 projects has been solicited by us. Everything has been word of mouth since the first days. If we went door to door, (as we are doing with well pumping) the list would grow to hundreds. Unfortunately, we cannot do this yet as funds are still very limited. In fact, as of today, we do not have adequate funds to complete these 58.
IT IS NOT ALL FUN
While the work of putting people back in their homes is very, very rewarding, it also has a very sad side as well. Today for instance, I met with an older man who is still so grief stricken that he can barely talk. He lives alone in his partially destroyed house, with precariously hanging rafters overhead. He refuses to leave because he sleeps on the floor next to a large picture and small shrine of his wife who died in the Tsunami. It fell to me to tell him that we can do nothing for him because of higher priorities and limited funds. Walking away from him was heart wrenching.
READY TO BE OUR NEXT WAVE OF VOLUNTEERS?
We have been discussing how to set-up a system whereby others could come to participate in the work, be it camps, orphanages or house re-construction. We know the ropes, have the contacts and certainly have a bottomless pit of work available. Most of the unknown elements that scares many away from travel to a third world country would be eliminated. We could help guide the volunteers at each step of the way. It would be great to rotate volunteers through on a regular basis. It would be a huge help to us to have others lending their advice and experience and bringing back first-hand reports. More to follow.
In the meantime, Vasula of Volunteer International has several Americans interested in just such a set-up. In four weeks we will begin receiving architects, engineers and construction professionals through VI.
February 15, 2005
JUST ANOTHER DAY!
The spirit of the work that inspired the team to come here has continued long after most of the team has left. On Sunday, I was loading up the van with supplies for camps down south in the Ampara District. My tuk-tuk driver asked if he could accompany me, and then his father then showed up and asked if he could also come. Within a few minutes the entire Sebamali family (father, mother, brother and 2 sisters) were in the van. They had never visited any camps and did not know what to expect.
After stopping off at the Thirchenthor and Anver Village camps, we headed south. Just outside the city of Kalmunai, we found a new camp and stopped there. The greeting was the same, and to my surprise, the Sebamali family jumped right in with games and other play with the kids. New faces and names, but same wonderfully unconquerable spirit.
We returned to the Thampaddai camp and found that everyone had already been moved out. We were directed to a new camp in the forest. As we drove into the dense growth, it became apparent that this forest was home to perhaps thousands of refugees. Without hope of finding our original families, we left. As we drove off, however, the camp telegraph system went into effect and boys from the original group chased our van down. We agreed to meet everyone in a few hours to distribute their supplies.
The same experience occurred in the Thirkovil camp. The previous blue tarp camp had been replaced by individual tents spread throughout the countryside. We were only able to track down about half the former residents, but they gladly received the requested supplies.
Because of the remote location of these villages and the intense destruction of infrastructure suffered in the Ampara District, the government and NGOs are just now organizing camps. These people have lived at primitive levels for over seven weeks since the Tsunami.
After our scheduled re-visit to Thampaddai, we stopped at Periya Salamanca, a large religious camp organized by the local mosque. We had a large crowd of children to entertain, but they were a grateful audience. Once again, their drawings showed deep pain and sorrowful memories. As we left, I asked the chief what his needs were. He replied 50 backpacks for the school children. Nothing should surprise us after so many great experiences, but we had exactly 50 backpacks left over because of not being able to find everyone at the previous camp!
At about 9 PM, we returned to the Chedipalayam Camp, outside of Kalmunai. We were looking for a woman and her mentally and physically handicapped son we met earlier in the day. The boy, Sanathan, had the most beautiful smile I had ever seen. I met his 9-year-old brother who carried him to safety during the Tsunami. The father had abandoned the family leaving the mother to raise their five children alone. We gave her some needed milk for him and $100 cash. So alone in the world, she broke down in tears when we gave her the gifts.
The mother had been advised to put her son in an institution, and she was very confused. I told her that as the mother she would be guided to do what was right. She said that no one would care for him the way she can, and she wanted him home. I told here we would help that happen. (Sanathan, like Denijen earlier also needs a wheelchair, so our behind the scene forces will be put to work again.) I also reassured her that Sanathan, far from being a curse, was a blessing from God and that he was royalty in our presence.
The father in the Sebamali family that he joined me told her about a facility north of Batticaloa called Ozanum. He recommended she go to see if they could help her boy. Because of the long distance for her to travel, I said I would check it out the next day and let her know.
On Monday, I went to Ozanum. What a marvelous place! It houses about 35 mentally retarded individuals in a beautiful, spacious and clean environment. Ozanam is run by the Sisters of the Holy Family and funded by the efforts of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It was a joy playing with all those there, including the nuns.
To my surprise, Sanathan and his mother showed up. After meeting with the nuns, they offered to let Sanathan come one day each week for training and socialization. I am hoping we can continue to help her by defraying travel and other expenses as well as by contributing to Ozanum for the care of Sanathan.
Once again, the hand of the Lord was visible for all to see.
When we first arrived in Batticaloa, Scott and I walked through the fishing villages to survey the damage and see how we could help. A man named Keerthy approached and insisted on showing us his destroyed house and fishing boats. He showed us his wounds all over his body. He asked for help on his house, then for buying boats and finally just for cash. Each time we had to refuse him because our resources are so limited. He became agitated, constantly grabbing at us until we were finally able to get away. On a subsequent walk, these events repeated themselves. Over the ensuing days, those around his house, including 6 fishermen who formerly worked for him, became quite angry. Once we started house repairs, resentment grew as these villagers thought we were giving preferential treatment to others. It got to the point that some workmen were afraid to go near. Last week I visited with Keerthy again and asked what we could do for him and his villagers that was within our means. He requested a toilet. There are about 75 people in the immediate area without a toilet facility. I of course agreed and the work started today. This small advance, added to the other small steps forward he and so many others have made brought about a marked change. His countenance his brightened and he has even done a little fishing from the shore. Instead of treating each other with suspicion, we are now warm friends. He had me over this afternoon for a crab and prawn lunch (which he caught himself). All the local people gathered to watch me eat, and attend me like a king. While this type of situation is so embarrassing to me, it reinforces that we are empowered to do so much good, even when resources are limited. Just showing love and concern is enough sometimes, even amidst a catastrophe such as this. Hope is as necessary a staple of life as rice and water.
February 12, 2005
The Last Days of the Ladies, etc.
LAST DAYS OF THE LADIES
During their last days in Batticaloa, our ladies worked on clean-up for the next round of houses to begin soon. In addition, the nurses Michelle and Emily connected with a group of Canadian doctors, somewhat stranded because of the two day strike which shut down Batti. They took the doctors to camps to provide additional medical attention. They two also bought countless supplies for delivery to the camps in the Ampara District. Their last job was to make great first aid kits to leave at the camps so minor wounds will not grow into serious problems. Watching Michelle and Emily provide medical help and advice throughout the country brought us all a great sense of pride. Their skill and professionalism brought comfort to many and I am sure at least one baby is alive today because of their intervention. It was also Michelle, ever the teacher, who brought the long list of games we played. Without that list, over a thousand children would have gone through life without knowing how to do the Hokey Pokey. The Sri Lankan children really enjoyed the game, and we're certain they'll improve on it. Nala pianum amayatum! (That is Bon Voyage in Tamil).
NOW THAT I AM ALONE
I hope Scott will forgive that I depart from his use of third person accounts in previous blogs, but now that I am all alone in the East, it seems appropriate.
If oil is liquid gold, than water is liquid platinum. In the now very dry, intensely hot climate, water is a premium. Most people have a simple well on their property (about 8-10 ft deep), but many are still poisoned from the Tsunami. Not only did salt water invade the well, but also a black, oily sludge, which was carried by the waves. Simply pumping the wells (as is frequently done) will not always remove the residue and foul taste. As a consequence, many wells that have been pumped by others (including American and Canadian armed forces) require follow-up cleaning.
Putting wells into working condition has become a high priority for us, starting with those which have not had any attention. At about $8 per well, we are planning to do at least 500 wells over the next few months.
Being easily bought off myself, I know how quickly candy opens doors, but I had no idea how rapidly it would work in Sri Lanka. This is a country of sweet lovers. I walk through the camps or villages giving out lollipops, not only to the kids but parents as well. (In fact, the old grandmothers mob me more than the children do.) I have been able to spend many hours in homes and tents because of a 5 cent candy. It is possible to learn so much more of their lives and needs in such an environment. The smiles so often turn to frowns and tears after just a few moment of talking.
THINGS YOU WILL NOT SEE IN AMERICA
Tuk-Tuks (nothing more than a sewing machine on 3 wheels that passes as a taxi) Cows roaming freely throughout the streets (not for religious reasons, but free foraging) Drivers smiling at each other after near miss accidents Heads shaking side to side to indicate YES Soldiers and police armed with AK-47 rifles Asking anyone, anywhere for direction, and having them respond. (Just like America, however, the directions are usually wrong!) Hundreds of riders on 1 speed bikes, all traveling at the same slooow speed. Horn honking by drivers as a courtesy warning, not out of anger. Power going out regularly, without anyone complaining Houses clustered together without private access. It is accepted practice to walk through one yard to get to another. Barbed wire. It is the accepted fencing material, apparently intended to only stop animals as everyone knows how to climb through it.
TOURING NAAVALADY WITH RAVI
I took a boat to tour Naavalady, the most heavily hit area. It is inaccessible by road, and as such has received little attention. I was taken by Ravi, the man mentioned in an earlier blog by Scott, who rescued 95 people. It was thrilling to hear his firsthand account and see the locations where his heroism took place. I found out that he actually rode the Tsunami wave in his boat. He unloaded the victims and went back through the surging waves five times. (His spirit of service is deeply imbedded. As we walked along the beach, he stopped to help an army tractor mired in the sand.)
Ravi humbly asked if we could build him a temporary shelter. (His house you may recall was completely spared, although it is at the water edge and was completely submerged by the waves.) The shelter he requested is for his fishing and boat equipment. I learned that his own house and yard are very crowded now, as he has taken in 4 orphans he rescued. How could anyone refuse this man anything? Construction will begin in a few weeks.
I saw a Hindu temple that had been filled with 200 worshipers, only to have 150 perish. Naavalady is the most barren landscape I have seen here. In many areas there is no trace of house or life, other than palm and coconut tress, for as far as can be seen. At first glance it would seem to be an island paradise, unspoiled by human hands, until you realize that there were hundreds of homes here just 6 weeks ago. Even the palm trees are dying, some say because of the heat of the water as it rushed by. The scene is reminiscent of photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I climbed through another temple, dedicated to the goddess Kadal Achi Amman, protector of all who work or travel on the seas. Crawling under massive slabs of concrete, I emerged into the holiest part, with a statue of the goddess. It was much like ancient pyramid explorers must have felt.
The landscape is dotted with white plastic flags on stick poles. I learned that each flag marks the site of a quickly dug grave.
I came hoping to help. Unfortunately, there is little we can do for these particular people. They have all been relocated, and without basic services such as water, sanitation and food, they cannot even come back to live in a tent at their home sites. The beginning of re-construction will be months and maybe years into the future.
February 10, 2005
Rotary Club of Batticaloa
As we mentioned previously, on our first night in Batticaloa, we hooked up with the local chapter of the Rotary Club, which has been very active in helping the Tsunami victims in the area. The local chapter, in concert with many international affiliates, has distributed tents, sleeping bags, needed food and other supplies to camps. The club members have continued to actively support us by opening many doors, intervening when we encounter obstacles (especially cultural issues), and giving us guidance. Now the club has offered to sponsor our home reconstruction endeavors under the umbrella of their organization, which will really put things on a faster, firmer track.
As we have said, the local Rotarians include many prominent people in the community. Our initial contact who introduced us to the chapter is Murali, a dental surgeon. He has agreed to assist us in coordinating the financing of the home building. Other members several "Grama Sevakas" (GS) or heads of villages; the Division Secretary (DS) who is responsible for the entire Batticaloa area, with the GSs under his command; and the Government Agent (GA) who is akin to a governor over the region, with many DSs under his supervision.
The club president, Moorthy, as well as other members, including Ram, Murali and Shanker (the DS), have seen our work in the camps with children and in the villages with home re-construction. They have been invaluable in working through various troublesome issues and have pledged their support to see our project through completion. Their local presence and experience in the business community will help bridge the 12,000 miles that will soon stand between us. We are grateful for their trust and sponsorship.
SRI LANKAN HOMES,INC. (cont'd)
As of this morning, we are up to 36 house projects. As word spreads, more and more are coming forward. It is expected that by the time Jack leaves on the 20th, we will have over 100 projects in the pipeline -- although we still need to raise funds to complete these projects. This number surpassed our wildest imagination as we first embarked on this endeavor.
Some residents in the camp are still reluctant to sign up with us out of fear that the government will not give them any money if their house is already fixed-up, but people have been telling these reluctant residents that they shouldn't expect to get much from the government and anytime soon.
In addition, others do not want to leave the camps because they believe that they will lose the meager refugee benefits that they are in line to receive if they stay in the camps, including a one-time payment of $50 per family for living expenses; a one-time payment of $25 per family for cooking utensils; and a monthly payment of $4 per person for food. Not much by our standards, but for a family without home or work, the money is substantial.
To assist us in deciding which house we will work on and in what order, we ask the following questions of the homeowner:
How many families and people who will move into the house from the camps? How much damage was done to the house? Will you commit to moving back immediately? Will you assist us in the rebuilding process and how? Can you pay for any of the work yourself? Are there any extenuating circumstances, including advanced age, pregnancy, number of children, or other issues that we should take into account?
After looking at the damaged structure and weighing the responses to the questions above, we make cuts. It is very difficult to tell a family that we won't be able to work on their home. This task has been left to Jack, and it weighs heavily on him. As has happened so often during this trip, the joy of helping some is offset by the sadness that we can't help more.
We have set up a small organization to continue the work long after we depart. We have hired Jude as a full-time Project Manager. He will be assisted by his father working as Superintendent, and John Paul, a very smart and energetic person working as a utility man -- John Paul seems to be either related to or friends with about 90 percent of Batticaloa.
We have also identified masons, carpenters, well restorers, as well as suppliers and deliverymen. During our last days here we are developing relationship of trust with people that will be needed in our absence.
As long as our friends in America continue with their generous support, it is conceivable that we will continue this project well into the future.
With thousands of home destroyed or damaged beyond repair (hundred in the Dutch Bar area were literally obliterated, leaving no trace of their existence), there is an urgent need for homes to be built in order to get these folks out of the camps, but the government has not yet given permission for the building of permanent structures. We have been able to work out an arrangement to allow us to build temporary structures on the properties, but we have learned that these temporary structures may serve as the homes for these people for years. Because of this, we have designed a home that will be quick and easy to build, but will last should the owner need to remain in it for several years.
Each of these temporary dwelling structures will be approximately 10 ft by 10 ft and consist of concrete posts supporting a wood frame structure. The roof will be covered with clay tiles and the walls with corrugated steel sheets. The floor will be made of concrete. Each home will have a door and window to let in light and allow a cross breeze. Based on what we have been told by our local contacts, these structures can be expanded in the future and will now hold a family of 4-5.
February 09, 2005
THE AMPARA DISTRICT
After an all night train ride on Sunday, the team arrived back in Batticaloa and went back to work on houses. Before starting, however, Jack delivered the wheelchair to Denijen in the Thirchenthor camp. As Jack pushed him around the camp, Denijen squealed with laughter. Many in the camp saw a new side of this normally quiet boy. Being able to help this boy and his loving family has been one of Jack's greatest rewards on the trip. The connections the team has made on both sides of the country have made many experiences such as this possible.
With 3 new repair projects moving along well, the team set out for the Ampara District, about 70 miles to the south. The roads and infrastructure look as if the Tsunami hit yesterday. Many roads and bridges were washed-out with temporary, one-lane bridges, or simply rubble piles used as roads. Travel was slow, so we were able to visit only two camps. Because these villages had the ocean about 200 yards to the front and the lagoon 200 yards behind, they were virtually wiped-out. With nowhere to run, many more died in the Ampara District than anywhere else in Sri Lanka. Services are still rudimentary. The closest water supply for our first stop Thampaddai, was several miles away. We will be providing a 1000-liter tank for them as well as shoes for the children. The need for shoes was brutally apparent as we played with children who ran barefoot among the barbed wire.
At our next stop, Thirkkovil, where over 150 people lived under a large blue plastic tarp. As always, the children are a joy and love playing games with us. The stark reality of their pain came out, however, as they sat to draw pictures with the art supplies we provided. Two drawings showed corpses floating in the water, with the words DEAD BODY next to them. We can never imagine what their young minds have seen and will see in their dreams for years to come.
WALKING THROUGH THE VILLAGES
Walking through the villages where we are re-building and repairing houses is a gratifying and humbling experience. So many come to greet us, to offer thanks, have us meet their children and come sit with them a while to listen to their stories of loss. They so rarely see anyone who comes to help. And because almost everyone here has experienced the unthinkable, with whom can they share their stories? We are glad to offer them a listening ear, and we sometimes struggle to offer words of comfort, but often the hugs are most appreciated. They always seem genuine in their appreciation, which is often moving to us.
The other day we spoke to a woman and her only surviving relative, a twelve year-old boy. Her sixteen-year-old son had gone to his grandparents to paint their house as a fiftieth wedding anniversary present. He arrived just 30 minutes before the wave. In that house with her son, were the woman's parents, and her sister and brother-in-law with their two daughters. They were all killed. She tenderly gave us a memorial booklet with all their pictures. As her home was not severely damaged, we cannot help her with hammers and saws, but by stopping in to see her frequently, we hope to bring her some small degree of solace.
GOING BACK TO WORK
We have the great opportunity to build for the future here. We are helping numerous individuals to begin their professions once again. For instance, we have bought a sewing machine to put a seamstress back into business. Carpentry tools, electronic repair tools, fishing boats, re-building a tailor shop and a small green grocery, will all help each of these people for years to come. For $30 we are able to buy an elderly man a lamp needed to fish at night for prawns. This small investment will allow him to make $2-3 per night, just enough for him to live on! The money we have received in donations is going incredibly far, and because we are able to pinpoint needs, (right down to shoe size or type of baby formula needed), every penny makes a huge difference. Your generous contributions are changing people's lives, and we thank you for that because we have the great fortune to see the direct impact.
Sunday was a day to remember. Davy Rothbart, the NPR reporter trailing us for several days became the story himself. Bailey, the daughter of Davy's close friend, had been writing to a pen pal in Sri Lanka for several years, during which time they have grown very close. Bailey had not heard anything from her pen pal Milka since the Tsunami. Everyone in Bailey's hometown was worried and asked Davy to try to find her. He and Jack embarked on their version of the Stanley and Livingston search, and to their great joy, walked into her home in the afternoon. After her initial shock at seeing two strange westerners in her remote village, she became overjoyed. Her joy increased when Jack and Davy called her pen pal in Michigan (3 AM their time). They talked for quite a while. For these few moments, the world became very small. Davy, having watched the team and their intense emotional experiences as an observer, became overwhelmed. Driving away, Jack put on the headphones and interviewed Davy for ½ hour! This segment may never make the radio, but the tears Davy shed, was indicative of the way Sri Lanka and its stories of joy and pain touch all involved so, so deeply.
After this, Davy and Jack went to the orphanage at Anandapura to visit the mentally and physically handicapped orphans and pick-up a wheelchair for a child in Batti. They danced with many residents to music on the boom box the team recently brought them. Davy and their driver, both new to such an environment, learned firsthand that these retarded children and adults possess powerful spirits.
The wheelchair is for an eleven-year-old boy, Denijen, in a Batti camp. He is severely retarded and receives very little professional attention. His dedicated mother sits with him all day, keeping the flies away and tending to his every need. We learned that even though he has never been able to walk, that he has never had a stroller or wheelchair. During our first visit to Anandapura, we saw the exact wheelchair that Denijen needed. In exchange for two new specialty wheel chairs that we had ordered for the orphanage at the director's request, we were given this one, which we're sure that Denijen and his family will appreciate.
February 06, 2005
News from the South and East
The team returned to several of the villages that we had visited on our last trip, including Weligama and Thal Aramba. The team was warmly received, and the requested supplies were greatly appreciated. The Bos family in Thal Aramba, which is coordinating the needs of the decimated village near their house, said that we were the only group that actually returned as promised. That was the same thing that the people in the village of Weligama (and the chief of the Muslim camp in Kattankudy) said to us. The team was treated like old friends, and the children and some of the adults remembered our names and songs that we had taught them.
The team returned to Batti on the train Monday morning. Three houses were completed this past week and families are moving back in. One of the next priority houses to complete is for a man named John who has 20 people living in his home.
The team heard a powerful story when they were in Batti that bears repeating. When the team was walking along the lagoon outside of Batti where almost all of the first-row homes were completely demolished, our translator introduced us to a man and his family living there. He was well-known in the area for having rescued 95 people from the lagoon after the Tsunami. After the first wave struck the houses, he told his wife to move to higher ground with his children and that he was going to try to save the people who had been carried out into the lagoon and were crying for help. He told his wife that God would bless him for helping the people and that he couldn't ignore their pleas for help. Between the succession of waves and after all had hit the shore (depending on the location, the number of waves varied from 3-7), this good man risked his life and in fact wrecked his boat saving people. What is truly miraculous about the account is that along the entire stretch of the lagoon that we walked, his house is the only first-row house left completely intact with only very minor damage. We all felt it was an honor to be in this humble man's presence.
Michelle and Emily, our registered nurses, continue to assist the people in camps. They are doing assessments, dressing changes, and teaching/nursing interventions. They have found a need for regular follow-up for those injured from the Tsunami because the wounds are not healing properly, in part due to the inability to keep the wounds covered and protected. The nurses are handing out clean dressings and antibacterial ointment. Anyone with severely infected wounds is being referred to the hospital.
Some of the people have been injured from clearing their properties of debris -- foot lacerations are common, and the nurses are dressing or redressing these wounds. The nurses are also doing well-baby checks and teaching pregnant mothers about care issues.
February 04, 2005
Jack remained in Batti to oversee the construction and will join the rest of the team in Colombo on Saturday to head south again to revisit our friends and bring them the supplies that they requested. We heard that the 2 houses are completed, except for a few minor details. The owners were exuberant. After consulting with a government official, the team decided to build brick homes where there were only wood shacks previously because the cost is not substantially more expensive, but the new structure will provide a much improved living condition. The exception to this approach will be the erection of temporary huts for those awaiting the rebuilding of their homes.
While in Colombo on Friday, some members of the team went back to the orphanage in Anandapura to visit the residents and bring requested items. It was a warm reunion, and the residents particularly loved the boom boxes and danced with the team. Joining us were two new volunteers from VI (Kara from the USand Emily from GB) as well as Lisa who had been to the orphanage before.
The team already misses John Carmon who was a gem of a man -- the children also enjoyed his reassuring and loving presence. We are starting to lose members as they return home taking with them precious memories, changed lives, and bigger hearts.
The team will head back to Batti on Monday and perhaps to the Ampara district later in the week to visit camps that we have heard are overcrowded -- one camp we learned has 600 families sharing 3 toilets.
February 02, 2005
Sri Lankan Homes, Inc.
It did not take long for news to spread in Periya Uppodai and neighboring villages that we were working on the 2 homes and assessing 9 others. Many people came to the job sites and asked us to take a look at their homes. We found it too hard to turn anyone down because their circumstances were all appalling, and we have found that the 2 houses are costing less than we anticipated, closer to $600 (including materials and labor) to complete. So now we have 24 projects in the pipeline, all of which we expect to complete in 6 weeks if we do not encounter weather delays or shortages of materials.
That will mean that we will move more than 33 families (112 individuals) out of the camps.
Some of the elderly or very poor lived in simple huts wrapped in sheet metal that were completely swept away by the Tsunami. A pregnant woman and her family lived in one of these structures. We are contemplating building more permanent structures for these people when they are not attached to a larger house, but we have to check with the local government official to clear this plan.
We have never seen a man over here with such a big smile on his face as Anthony had at the end of the day yesterday. He is the owner of one of the 2 houses we started. He was dirty and tired after assisting the mason all day. His whole family was involved all day, with his son pitching bricks and fetching the mortar and his wife keeping the job site clean. A carpenter and his 2 helpers, including a 12 year old boy, all from the camps, largely completed the kitchen area, and the masons finished half of the wall that was blown out, including a column that Jack had them add for strength over the objection of the mason.
The other house, owned by Immanuel, the church organist and chorister, got off to a slower start because of a delay in the brick delivery. But we pulled out his floor that was blown apart by the wave, and he sang while he worked along with neighbor boys from the camp.
We hope to have Immanuel and Anthony houses completed this week.
Part of the team returned to this camp to check on several people, including a baby that had been hospitalized and an asthmatic man for whom we had given money for a 3 month supply of medication. We brought him 3 months more because of the prohibitive cost. The nurses also helped to educate several of the mothers on child healthcare issues.
Our translator, Jude, has a cousin at this camp who lost his wife and both of his children in the Tsunami. He has been walking around the camp wholly despondent after losing everything he cares for, including all of his worldly possessions. Jude said that he had nothing to hold on to and had tried to poison himself several times. His brother now follows him around wherever he goes to watch him.
One of the team members hugged Anandan and he buried his head into the team member’s chest and sobbed, as did everyone observing the scene.
The man is a mason, and we asked him to come to the job site tomorrow to help us on some houses, and he agreed. We hope that we can distract him, even if just for a moment, from his unfathomable sorrow.
In tow at the camp and at the house construction is a reporter for the NPR radio program, This American Life.; He has taken an interest in our work in the last 2 days, and has really acted more like a member of the team than an embedded journalist chasing a story.
February 01, 2005
We started work on 2 houses in Periya Uppodai, a village near the lagoon just outside of Batti. The entire team was out clearing the lots and were glad to encounter only a scorpion and rat. The owner and his family were also helping.
We purchased the materials, which will be delivered by the most efficient method available -- ox cart -- within an hour we are told, but that may be Sri Lankan time, which is a bit fluid. The lumber, roof tiles (clay), bricks, sand, mortar, tools, and other materials for the 2 houses all cost less than $500. We estimate that the labor (masons, carpenters, and other artisans and laborers) will be around $300-500.
These 2 houses are only partly damaged – brick walls blown out, parts of the roof damaged, and entire adjoining structures destroyed. We estimate that rebuilding homes that are significantly more damaged will cost between $1,000-2,000. The benefits of getting the people out of the camp (where students were supposed to start school last Monday, but could not because all the rooms were occupied) and back into their homes will be substantial. The 2 houses we’re working on have 4 families and a total of 14 people living in them.
Last night, we went to the camp and met with the residents to explain our system. Nine more houses were added to our list, and we will go view them today. Many people are still frightened about returning, both out of fear of a new tsunami (which was not helped by a false report last week) and because of the horrendous experience of death and destruction that they all lived through.
We still take breaks from the construction work and visit some of the area camps, especially the ones that we have already visited. We are warmly received that old friends by the adults and especially the children who remember our names and the games that we played with them.
We calculated that we have played and loved on more than 1,000 children around the country since we have been here. But somehow each camp and each child takes on a separate part of our memories.
It is amazing how far our money can go in purchasing items for these camps. The mosquito nets for babies cost around a $1 and the balls and bats are less than $3. Sandals, which many of the children lack, are 50 cents. A set of drawing books and pastels are less than $1. Cindy has been tracking the inventory and the specific needs of the various camps and communities.
Our 2 nurses, Michelle and Emily, not only play with the children, but have also been evaluating some of the people at the camps, particularly the children whose cuts don’t seem to heal well under the conditions that they live in. Emily has been purchasing many supplies, including formula and diapers for the children. She also had to admit a child to a hospital on Sunday night because the baby was having difficulty breathing. The mothers seem to have great confidence in the nurses. Michelle has also been checking the blood pressure for some of the women, especially new mothers.
January 31, 2005
Our team mission has become more refined since we arrived and visited the camps. We have observed that most of the basic needs of the refugees (food, water, shelter, and medicine) are largely being met, primarily by the many NGOs from around the world. Instead, we have discovered that we can offer a valuable services to the families who have suffered in unimaginable ways by spending time with them, playing games with their children, having the children draw pictures in their new drawing books with their pastels, talking to the adults about their experiences, treating minor injuries, and sometimes just holding the mother who lost a child or a boy whose parents were killed.
Another track that we have pursued is to visit villages and camps, find out what their specific needs are, and then purchase what we can. By doing this, we can operate under the radar and in a way that is more efficient than the NGOs by targeting specific and urgent needs. In the east, we have been able to purchase the items in Batticaloa and take them to the camps. We plan to take the items to the villages in the south in the near future.
On Friday night the 28th, Jack and Scott took a rollercoaster of a train ride to Batticaloa (Batti) in order to scout out camps to visit for the team arriving in vans on Saturday afternoon. Jack and Scott were able to visit 6 camps in the vicinity of Batti and establish a relationship with the children and camp directors. One of the camps was a in the Muslim town of Kattankudy, where the camp leader and children warmly received them. When the team arrived, they were able to view the immense devastation in the poorer section of Batti called the Dutch Bar, where no one has returned and very few homes were not entirely demolished.
On Saturday evening, the team visited a camp in town at St. Mary’s church. A film crew working on a documentary for the Discovery Channel on volunteerism accompanied the team to the camp. Along with the crew were several folks from VI, including Vasula and Lisa (from Seattle). Lisa taught some of the children Native American songs and dances, and they treated her to some of their traditional songs. In addition to the games and drawing, the nurses examined several of the children and a few adults.
One of the most difficult moments of the trip for the team members was to see a woman who had watched the wave carry her only 2 children to their deaths. She was disconsolate. Rather than trying to talk with her through a translator, Michelle and Ann simply sat beside her with their arms around her. There were not many dry eyes among the team.
Later that night, Jack and Scott met with the Batti Rotary Club at the local president’s house. The club has been very active in helping the camps in the area. The club members applauded the important work that the team has been doing in the camps -- one of the members had observed the team play with the children at St. Mary's. When Jack and Scott suggested that the team would like to help build some homes to get people out of the camps, one of the club members thought it was an excellent idea and suggested that he could assist the team as he was the government official overseeing the camps.
The next day, the government official took the team to one of the camps and spoke to the village elder about building a home through what he called a “pilot project” for one of the families in the camps. A process was set up to hold a lottery that night to pick the lucky family. Building from the experience from that first home, the team plans to put a system in motion to have more homes built after the team leaves. The cost may be as little as $500-$1,000 to repair a simple home in the devastated area. The team then went with the village elder to look over his village and were struck by the power of the Tsunami and his and others’ stories about their experiences.
On Monday, we plan to start building the home using laborers from the camp.
January 28, 2005
On Wednesday, we drove to the south from Colombo and observed the devastation almost the entire length of the shore. Some communities seemed to be harder hit than others. Even within a small stretch of shoreline, 20 houses are completely wiped out, while next to the demolished ruins a structure is still standing, often due to the better construction quality.
One of the most striking scenes was the ghostly train left on the tracks near the city of Hikkaduwa. More than 1,500 people were killed while riding the train when the enormous wave struck.
We passed through the now bustling city of Galle and drove toward Matara where we had heard that the camps had not received as much attention as those in Galle. Along the way to Matara, we stopped at a small fishing community near Weligama and played with about 20 children. The families were living in canvas tents on the foundations of their now destroyed homes. The area around the tents was still strewn with debris, including a significant amount of glass -- a danger for the largely barefooted residents.
The children and parents told us about their lost family members -- it seemed that no one was untouched by the Tsunami. The victims ranged from small children to elderly, but seemed to take the greatest toll on the children. Most of the men lost their boats and have no way of feeding or supporting their families.
We engaged the children in games and song. Cindy demonstrated her newfound cricket skills by whacking the ball into a nearby canal. John was the boys' favorite cricket bowler. Jack rode around with the village elder on the back of his scooter to view the devastation. Scott was barred by the team from playing any rock throwing games with the boys because of an incident at a previous camp involving a bird. Michelle, Ann, and Emily had the kids completely engrossed in games for more than an hour, after which the children treated us to some of their beautiful songs and dances.
We made a list from the residents of things that the village was in particular need of and promised to return.
That evening we drove to a refugee camp east of Matera and again had the children engaged in play. After the children were settled, we handed out drawing books and pastels to each child and had them sit and draw. Without prompting, they proudly gave us their drawings -- almost all were of the Tsunami and some showed the bodies in the water. This was very difficult for some of us to see. The team members familiar with art therapy thought that using such a drawing exercise would allow children a forum to express their feelings.
We plan to use art therapy exercises and what we are calling "game therapy" at all of the camps and villages that we visit. When we return to Colombo, we will purchase hundreds more pads and pastels.
On Thursday, we visited a school in Matara and a school at a Buddhist temple outside of town where we met with a monk who will take us to a camp that he oversees on our next visit to the area.
On the way back to Colombo, we stopped at the small village of Thal Arambaand played with the children. We met with a Dutch couple that lives nearby and has been coordinating the assistance for their neighbors who lost their homes and livelihood. We have a list of items from the couple, including pots, pans, and other cooking utensils, to purchase and bring back to the families.
We plan to go to the East Coast early Saturday morning, including the district of Ampara which was largely wiped out by the Tsunami.
January 25, 2005
Monday was the team's first day working in the field. We spent the day at an orphanage outside of Colombo called Anandapura -- it is for the mentally and physically disabled. The number of residents were doubled due to the destruction of a similar facility by the Tsunami. The director, affectionately called "Auntie," told us, "Every day is a tsunami here." The team members played with and held most of the residents, bringing them much needed love and attention. We left having made many friends.
The immediate needs of the orphanage that we are working to fill are:
(1) developing a physical therapy plan;
(2) providing music with boom boxes and cd's;
(3) establishing a large supply of diapers, which are in great demand at the facility; and
(4) providing a back-up generator for the frequent power outages.
Tuesday we spent the morning pricing school uniforms and supplies for students at a school on the East Coast. In the afternoon, the team went to a refugee camp in Moratuwa, outside of Colombo. We brought toys for the children and spent several hours playing organized games with the many children. It was a heart-warming sight to see the children from the entire camp (and most of the adults) laugh and play. Michelle, Ann, and Cindy went through series of games that the children seem not to tire from, although the team members were worn out by the end of the day. "Duck, Duck, Goose" was changed to "Duck, Duck, DUCK" [with a much stronger tap on the head]. "Eyes, Ears, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" and "Red Rover" were also big hits. The commanding officer, several Buddhist monks, and most of the surrounding neighborhood looked on with delight. The smiles on those children's faces, just like the day before at the orphanage, made the entire trip worthwhile.
Volunteer International (VI), the Sri Lankan organization that we are working with, set up the visits to the orphanage and the refugee camp. The founder of VI is Vasula, and he has given the team some contacts to visit in the South. He is also lining up funding for purchasing uniforms and school supplies for more about 500 students at a school on the East Coast.
On Wednesday, the team will head south to the area around Galle to visit several refugee camps. We will try to get pictures uploaded and will try to report back before we go to the East Coast.
Emily (she and Michelle are our nurses) just arrived and will be joining us on our trip south. John Carmon, a grief counselor and funeral director from Hartford, will also be joining us.
The good and bad occasionally balance themselves here. After visiting Karushan’s grandmother, I met Subahani on the street. She was a young girl, 8 months pregnant, who lost her home during the tsunami. She was very high on our priority list for housing, and therefore was the first recipients of one of the many provisional homes we built. She was walking with her now 8 year old son. She has since converted her provisional home into a larger permanent home for her family.
We regularly plan excisions for the handicapped to go shopping or even just for a walk so they can experience the world and the townspeople can learn about them. A few days ago we took a group of 70 to Passakudah, a popular beach about one hour away. Those that were able, ran into the water fully clothed. The non-ambulatory watched happily from the shade or water’s edge. Moved by what he saw, a local man took out his wallet and offered to buy lunch for the entire group!
SERVING THE HOMELESS
We are excited about a new concept we are beginning work on. We are looking to obtain a small space and open "King Benjamin's House." This will be a place where the numerous homeless, handicapped, beggars, and elderly who roam the streets everyday can come for a bit of relief. Throughout the day they will be able to have a drink of water and a small meal. In addition, toilet, bathing, and laundry facilities will be available. There will also be a small room where they can rest for a while from the heat and commune with others. The political consequences will be positive, so we are working to get the approval and support of the Municipal Council. We are also working to obtain a Town owned location for free. We will be requesting food from local bakeries and small restaurants as well as residents who traditionally take meals to beggars on family birthdays. Local doctors will volunteer a small amount of time each month and provide basic care and counseling. Disadvantaged individuals will be encouraged to work at the site and earn a bit of money.
We anticipate opposition from the neighbors, but we are hopeful they will embrace our new plan.
SWORDS INTO PLOWSHARES
For the first time in 5 years there are no refugee camps in the East. Between the tsunami and civil war, the camps had been in full operation. With the end of the civil conflict last year, many of the displaced have been relocated.
The statue on the left is located on the grounds of the UN titled, “Let Us beat Our Swords into Plowshares.” I thought of this statue when I visited a former refugee campsite, now converted into a playground. While there is still a humanitarian crisis in the camps to the north, the East has started to take on a feeling of normalcy.
We are in the process of establishing a microloan program. We initially will be making about 20 loans of $250 each to disadvantaged women in a local village. The money will be used to start home-based businesses including: goat raising, chicken farming, seamstress work, weaving, and the manufacturing of clay pots. The loans will be for 4-1/2 years, with a repayment of about $6 per month. All the loans will be made in one village where peer pressure will help to insure re-payment. (There will be a village loan committee the is responsible for the group’s performance as a whole. If someone does not pay, the committee must make up the difference.) This type of program has been used successfully in many parts of the third world and is often the only way that these women can lift themselves out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.
Physically and mentally handicapped children are very common in the third world. Poor prenatal care, birth trauma, genetic abnormalities or childhood illness are all causes. At best they receive basic care at home or at the few facilities available. At worst parents can be neglectful, keeping them from sight out of embarrassment. We have been working from the beginning with many such children, but this trip seems out of proportion. In only a week we have investigated 9 new cases. With limited resources, tough choices must be made about who we can help. These decisions come with a heavy emotional toll for the parents and our team.
Sasikala is a woman with severe cerebral palsy we have been helping for about 2 years. When we met her, her mother and grandmother had both died and she was left in the care of her brother. He is not a good caregiver, unfortunately. We have been bringing Sasikala used video tapes of American movies and cartoons. Last month her brother sold her television to buy alcohol.
When we visited her today, she was very upset. She had not eaten for 3 days because of the stress she was under. Her electricity was about to be cut off because her brother had not paid the bill in about a year. In addition, her brother had stolen a neighbors bicycle and sold it, again for a few drinks. The neighbors were not sure about calling the police. We worked with the neighbors and family to have charges pressed against the brother, because without discipline, he will continue to abuse his sister. We also paid the electric bill which amounted to $65. Sasikala agreed to eat a big lunch and say healthy for us.
My primary goal this trip was to find a replacement for our long-time manager Fernando. After over 5 years with us, Fernando has resigned. He is working toward a better life for his children by emigrating to Australia. The job requirements are simple: fluency in English, Tamil and Sinhalese, good management skills, a big heart and the ability to put up with me! No problem!
We paid a quick visit to Sampritha, our young friend that we have been working with since her birth. She has struggled with fevers and seizures her entire life. It was gratifying to see her in perfect health and to have her mother say, “She is this way because of Sri Lankan Help. “As we left her home, Amertham, an old man we have been assisting since the tsunami rode by on his bike. He proudly showed me his strong legs and said almost the same thing as Sampritha’s mother. I felt like I was filming a commercial!
We have two new exciting prospects which I will be reporting on in the future.
The first is a group of disabled individuals, some of the thousands of innocents who were maimed or handicapped during the civil war. They are looking for micro-credit assistance so they can support their families in a meaningful way. The leader of the group is a friendly, intelligent man, who lost both his arms. He works in the rice fields, harvesting with his feet. Many others are in wheelchairs; some have lost their sight. One woman had part of her face shot away.
I watched one man come to our meeting, struggling to navigate his wheelchair through the sand and gravel. I thought we could adapt his wheelchair with large tread tires that would not sink into the soft ground. If it works, we could make the same modifications for many, many others.
Our second project is a group of families with fathers and husbands still in prisoner of war camps. The government is holding thousands of ex- rebels in re-education camps for as long as they determine necessary. During this time, their families are without support. The families currently receive NGO support to visit the men (bus tickets, etc.) but nothing for day-to-day living. The NGO that provides this assistance asked if we could participate by offing micro-credit to the women to establish home businesses. Most of these families have been relocated by the government far from their homelands in the north, so they do not have the normal family support structure, so vital here.
After interviewing several individuals, I have hired Subash, a former field officer for the United Nations. He is excited about the prospects of working with the needy on a grass-roots level. I learned from others that his father was well known for his charitable help to those in his community, so Subash comes from a good heritage.
Our first stop together was a remote elder home he knew about. In an isolated area, 18 elderly lived with one attendant. The government pays
such facilities $3.00 per person per month. With this and assistance from some generous donors, the facility is able to survive. Subash wants to purchase games and crafts for the residents so they can get an occasional break from their long idle days.
We recently met with a family with a tragic story. They live in a very remote area, accessible only by foot. The mother has had three daughters, all stricken with thelassemia, a blood disorder that is not uncommon in south Asia. The youngest daughter has already died and the eldest is very weak.
In order to try for a normal life, they require regular blood transfusions and a host of medications. They are susceptible to a variety of other problems related directly to the blood disorder or to their weakened condition. To add
to the sadness, the oldest has just found out that her own daughter has the problem as well.
Thelassemia is an inherited disorder with a one-in-four chance of being passed on. In this family all four of the descendants of the mother have it and because of the problems of access to proper care and medicines, the prospects are not good for the long-term. For about $8 a month we will be providing folic acid, vitamin C and B-complex, all essential supplements for their survival. In addition, we will be paying regular visits to ensure that all medications are being taken and doctor’s instructions are being followed.
When needed we will help them on the very long and arduous trip to their doctor’s.
Even though medical care is free in Sri Lanka, medicines are often not provided and those with no income and little education do not understand the need to put the little money they have towards them.
Shiloshini is a profoundly retarded teenage girl we have been assisting for about three years. We had provided a modified wheelchair to her parents in the hope that they would take her out from home occasionally. Because of her size and the difficulty of pushing her over dirt roads the wheelchair has seen little use. I asked her father for it back since it was not being used and he agreed. A few days later, we were making a delivery of requested supplies (tea tree oil for wound care, insect repellent, etc) to Anandapura, a small arm run by the mentally retarded. I asked Gladys, the director, what else I could provide. She requested a modified wheelchair next time I came. I
asked her, “How about right now?” She was shocked when I pulled the chair from the back of our truck! Sri Lanka is a very difficult place to be at times,
but it is small miracles such as this that help keep our spirits high amidst all the difficulties.
During the past rainy season, Batticaloa was severely flooded twice. While the rising ground water did not have the destructive force of a swollen river, it did leave a fair amount of damage. Two families we have helped with chickens, lost them due to the water and related illnesses. We are helping to replace them and modify their chicken coops to get them higher off the ground. In a world like this, it is so often two steps forward and one step back. Rudyard Kipling in his poem “If” noted one trait of a true man as, “If you can stand to see the things you’ve given your life to broken, and stoop and build them up again with worn out tools…”
The excess of standing water has caused a dramatic increase in malaria and dengue fever, though aggressive government action has helped to keep it from becoming an epidemic.
We are developing our plans with the Disabled Society. Unable to leave their homes easily, what they need most is help establishing cottage industries. We will be providing micro-loans to various individuals or groups for the following
Cinder block making machine
Seeds and fertilizer for a vegetable garden
A milk cow
In addition, we will be providing donated hearing aids and wheelchairs from the US.
Since the end of the civil war, the government has worked more to improve the lives of the Tamils in the east. There is now a well paved road connecting towns along the east coast. In Batticaloa, cows are no longer allowed on the main road, which is now two lanes wide with crosswalks to reduce the high number of pedestrian injuries. Plans are even made to install lighting in the town.
Little by little life is improving here, though the stream of sick and handicapped children and adults seems endless. So we continue to do what we can for those brought to us and thanks to your support, our work will continue for many years to come.
In addition to various tangible items we provide to two local elder homes, we regularly pay social calls. The elderly love company and a chance to talk. We also play games with them such a checkers, Connect Four, Chutes and Ladders and work jigsaw puzzles. Yesterday we taught them to play Black Jack which turned out to be very popular. I tried to induce them to ante a penny a round, but they did not bite. It was a good thing as I won only one hand out of 30!