Minnesotans go to Sri Lanka to aid tsunami victims
by John Tribbett
Save a Village
The devastated shores of Sri Lanka may have been half a world away, but the group of volunteers listened intently to Evan Balasuriya as if the people suffering in the ravaged tropical paradise were waiting right outside the window.
This was one of the final meetings for a group of Minnesotans before they left on an aid mission to Sri Lanka.
Packed inside the cooking classroom of the Whole
Foods grocery store was a group of 40 or so people—men, women, young,
and old—who had answered Balasuriya’s plea for volunteers willing
to sacrifice one month of their lives and the cost of a plane ticket to journey
to his homeland to help in the relief effort.
who grew up in villages all along Sri Lanka’s southern coast, has lived
in Minnesota for almost 30 years, many of them as the owner and chef of the
Sri Lankan Curry House restaurant in Minneapolis. Despite his long sojourn in
the Midwest, Sri Lanka has remained close to his heart.
“When I was a kid my father was a government medical practitioner, so
he would be transferred every two years—so I have lived in all those areas,”
he said as he pointed to a map he had drawn of the impacted areas. “So
it has given me many memories.”
When he heard the news of the tsunami he was in a panic as he frantically tried
to call home.
“It scared the hell out of me, because when we were kids in Sri Lanka
we used to always tease that if there was a tidal wave in Sri Lanka we would
go under,” he said.
It wasn’t until the next day that he was able to finally reach his brother,
and learned that his brother and many cousins were OK. The more he watched the
news the more helpless he felt. Later that week he was eating in a Chinese restaurant
and he opened a fortune cookie.
“It is time you formally help others,” the small piece of paper
“The first of the year I got up and said, ‘This is it. This is my
call!’” Balasuriya said.
Then he started making plans. He contacted the media and called friends, and
from there the momentum built.
“Since they have shown me on TV I was getting 200 e-mails a day and 100
phone calls a day,” he said.
From these contacts the first team was built, and the vision set in place.
goal is to take a group of 30 or 40 [people] every month, if I can, and to rebuild
one of the villages I lived in because all of their homes are shattered,”
Balasuriya said. “Rebuild a village—that’s my high aim.”
It seems he is off to a good start. So far, two groups are already locked in—the
first left last Saturday and a second group is planned for the first week of
March. Each group is comprised of teams of medical personnel, builders, teachers,
counselors and logistical support. His cousin, a well-known Sri Lankan Catholic
priest, will house the teams at an orphanage near Colombo that he has run for
over 30 years.
They face a foreboding task. While the onslaught of nightmarish images on cable
news channels and front pages has ground to a near-halt five weeks after the
deadly waves struck, the misery is little diminished. The death toll throughout
the Indian Ocean region has topped 225,000.
“Close to 50,000 [people] are dead in Sri Lanka and about one million
homeless,” said Balasuriya. “The only comparison I can tell you
is [what if] Minneapolis and St. Paul were hit by a tornado and everybody lost
their homes and they are all homeless. It is a total catastrophe.”
He is not alone in his assessment.
Shreen Saroor is a Sri Lankan citizen who has lived in Minnesota for almost
two years. She was heavily involved with NGOs (non-governmental organizations,or
what Americans call nonprofits) devoted to women’s issues while in Sri
Lanka, and when the disaster struck she knew she had to do something.
“When the tsunami hit, watching that on TV, I thought, ‘Oh my God.
What am I doing?’ I felt really bad about sitting there and watching,”
she said over the phone from Sri Lanka January 16. Her voice was audibly distraught
and she was frustrated by what she had witnessed the previous week and half.
One of the groups she had worked with previously was organized through the YMCA
in the city of Batticaloa near the east coast of Sri Lanka—one of the
hardest-hit areas. She called the YMCA and asked if they wanted her or her ticket
money to help in the relief efforts. They preferred her, and on January 6 she
arrived in Sri Lanka.
The next day she visited areas in Ampara district, near Batticaloa. In a report
sent home to friends she wrote about the experience.
of the villages I visited … are still in a deplorable condition,”
she wrote. “I saw bodies that were buried by the side of the seashore
being unearthed by the waves and eaten by crows. I don’t think I can get
rid of the smell I wear now for many weeks—or maybe many months.”
Since her arrival she has been traveling to camps and hospitals, visiting villages,
and talking to survivors. Initially, she was doing this work as an individual,
but shortly joined forces with the YMCA Batticaloa group, which is serving some
5,000 beneficiaries. I asked her to describe her experiences.
“A guy who met with us in a hospital lost 14 family members,” she
said. “He was volunteering with us unloading the medicine that I brought.
He started talking to me. Then I asked him, ‘What can I do for you?’
Then he said, ‘No one has gone to my village. Can you go and see my people?’
I went to his village where about 3,000 of its people got killed. Half of its
inhabitants got killed.”
“That is where I met this mother, who was staring at the sea with untreated
wounds. We had to force feed her vitamins and antibiotics because she was not
allowing us to treat her even. She had lost two daughters. It is just …
I don’t know,” she said as her voice trailed off into silence.
Bureaucracy and Corruption
Saroor has been frustrated by what she describes as a failure to act quickly
on the part of the INGOs (international NGOs) and the Sri Lankan government.
“The thing that I find here is that everybody is making assessments and
trying to collect statistics,” she said. “I completely understand
that they don’t want duplication—but in certain cases people have
to act quickly!”
Corruption, she admits, has also been a concern. While making her rounds one
day she witnessed food aid from an international body being unloaded near a
political party office. She was told government officers were taking the food
while nearby people were going hungry. She was infuriated and stormed into the
building and scolded the officials.
She also explained in many cases Sri Lanka’s long-standing ethnic conflict,
between the Tamil Tigers and the Singhalese-dominated government, played a big
part in the politicizing of aid. Both camps have accused each other of blocking
and misappropriating aid.
“It is so sad that right now they are playing politics and the south is
getting such a lot of attention,” Saroor said. “The east part of
Sri Lanka, which got very hard hit by the tsunami, because of the diverse population
that lives here—Muslims, Tamils and Singhalese—all three communities
together, there is lot of complications. Who controls what? There are a lot
of politicians who do whatever.”
And whatever is too often nothing at all. She said it was very difficult to
see the effect this had on the most vulnerable of survivors—the children.
saw a 12-year-old boy building a step up to the house,” Saroor said. “He
told [us] that he has about seven siblings and he wants to bring all of them
back. And his mother is alive and his father is dead. And this little child
was trying to do something to the house so that they could come back. I was
feeling so bad about him because I saw politicians going up and down in the
town—12 or 13 SUVs with bodyguards and all sorts of things. And none of
those people have reached in those areas.”
And despite the images of aid and reconstruction we witness in the media, according
to Saroor, the reality on the ground is different.
“The sea has brought piles of sand so that roads were completely blocked,”
“When I went there I didn’t see any earth-moving machines or nothing.
I was shocked because of what I saw there in Minneapolis [on TV] is totally
different and I was here after a week. And still nothing has been done. It’s
people—affected people—who were working and trying to clean the
roads,” she said.
“Sometimes you feel that you are so frustrated. I know quite a lot of
INGOs are working very hard on this but also their work is not enough. I was
watching TV and I know how much money had went into all these INGOs and how
much they are spending here.”
International media have echoed many of Saroor’s complaints. A January
24 Reuters report noted Western aid officials feared tsunami relief may not
reach hundreds of thousands in Sri Lanka because of government mismanagement
“I kind of hope we are like some guerillas out there, and that we are
going to go to someplace to fill a need that is not being filled. That’s
my hope,” said Mike Erkel during a phone interview less than 48 hours
before his departure.
Erkel, who lives near Mille Lacs Lake, is a former Special Forces medic who
did a tour in Vietnam and has recently worked as a physician’s assistant.
He is part of Balasuriya’s first team in Sri Lanka.
time I went over there I went with an M-16,” he said. “This time
I am going over there without it and it feels a lot better to be going over
there without it.”
Erkel hopes his small group can fill in some of the gaps described by Saroor.
“We are dealing with a fairly remote population from what I understand
from what Evan tells us. We are going to be dealing with people who aren’t
commonly reached by the usual methods. The extremely poor. That really appeals
He explained how he is trying to mentally prepare himself for the weeks to come.
“I have been in probably more stressful situations than probably anybody
going on this thing. This does take a toll on you as well. It’s going
to be real tough,” he said.
“It is going to look like a nuclear war when we get over there is what
I expect. Where it hit these beach areas, some areas it went in six to seven
miles inland and just devastated everything. There is going to be a lot of post-traumatic
stress in the people over there. There is going to be higher incidence of alcoholism,
suicide and drug abuse. All these things—take your pick.”
He is acutely aware of the post-tsunami dangers for Sri Lankan and aid worker
alike. They will have to contend with a plethora of issues—tropical diseases,
sanitation and security concerns.
“A couple of the big fears in the back of my mind: One is that there
are one-and-a-half million landmines in Sri Lanka. In one particular area where
the tsunami hit it washed out a lot of these landmines and they have no idea
where they are,” he said.
“Not to mention there is every type of known poisonous snake in Sri Lanka.
And I am hoping we don’t come back with malaria or dengue fever or japanese
encephalitis. There is a whole wide variety of just about every type of tropical
disease that you can get. It is a tropical paradise, but with that also comes
The Price of a Mercedes Benz
Pat Sundberg, an RN and Licensed Vocational Teacher from Isanti who is also
going with Balasuriya, shared some of Erkel’s concerns.
“The travel doctors said the biggest problem would be accidents. Then
I watched “The Amazing Race” [television show] last night and it
was in Sri Lanka and the cars were driving in all sorts of directions—not
in lanes—just all over the place. (She laughed) And that’s not much
of a fear. I guess when you get to be my age you have to die of something somewhere
Sundberg said being a part of a small group provided a chance to go in and
directly help other human beings.
“I guess I don’t have huge expectations. I know it is a group of
people who are willing to work all day until they are tired and they flop into
bed. But if it’s just to comfort some children, if it’s just to
comfort or work with families who have lost loved ones, if it is to nail up
a house—it doesn’t matter to me,” she told me by phone, also
less than 48 hours before her departure.
She hopes being in a small group, unattached to INGOs like the Red Cross or
Oxfam, will be the key to helping. But she is also cautious.
“It is a risk to go with somebody who is not with an established organization.
I think that small organizations sometimes have an advantage with local connections
so that they are not involved as politically as some. That is where you go on
a little bit of faith.”
For Balasuriya, there is no question his group will fill a need larger INGOs
and the government either can’t or won’t.
“Because we are grassroots and we will go right to the source we don’t
have to go through any red tape. We don’t have to go through bureaucracy.
You know how that is. They trickle down—we are grassroots. We have lots
of dedicated people going with me. And we are going to give it our best shot,”
“And the Red Cross, they got so many places they got to take care of.
We are totally focusing only in Sri Lanka, certain areas, and we are going to
go straight into the areas. And hands on—we are going to do it right away.
Big groups always have a problem. They don’t distribute right. Remember
last year in Iran, they had an earthquake? They got pledged billions. You know
how much they got? 17 million. So pledging and real donations are two different
Erkel sees the effectiveness of the small group in concrete terms.
“For the price—I think the entire cost of this entire operation
is the cost of a moderately priced Mercedes Benz—we can go over there
and hopefully really help some people and maybe save some lives.”
Part of a Larger Whole
“The collapse in international attention does not bode well for sustained
aid,” warned a report issued by Oxfam one month after the disaster hit.
“On paper, 93 percent of the U.N.’s humanitarian appeal has been
funded,” the report said. “In reality, governments have donated
only about half the total amount needed. Though more than $4 billion has been
promised for reconstruction, will these promises mean more than the broken promises
of aid after previous disasters in Iran, Mozambique and Central America?”
order for people like Saroor and Balasuriya to continue to provide relief directly
to the people of Sri Lanka, funding is critical. But funding for groups such
as these comes almost exclusively from private donors. Yet the part they play
is vital. The smaller groups and individuals are often able to fill in gaps
the bigger organizations miss.
“I have been working with volunteers, and they are young people, and we
are doing whatever possible. We are not supported by government or NGO’s—we
are just collecting individual contributions and trying to do something you
can do without any red tape. If somebody needs something we just buy it and
give it to them,” Saroor said.
“We don’t do the heavy things because we are not funded by any big
people. So it is just individual contributions that’s coming in. We visit
camps and try to give them money if the child is sick or to get some food. If
we see a pregnant lady we help her to get proper food.”
For the Minnesotans now at work in Sri Lanka, it is a belief in their grassroots
efforts that allows them to face the formidable task at hand.
“Today 31 U.S. soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Iraq and it really
grieves me and it really makes me feel sad. Then Bush is asking for another
80 billion dollars. Can you imagine what we could do to help the tsunami victims
with 80 billion dollars?” Erkel asked incredulously.
“I really think that maybe we need to try to reach out to the people of
the world in a different way and maybe by going over to help some people maybe
we can improve our image—try something a little different in this world.”
you would like to make a donation to the Sri Lankan aid groups mentioned in
the article please contact the following:
Tsunami Relief Action YMCA Batticaloa
26/4 Boundary Road South
Batticaloa, 30000, Sri Lanka
Updates and photos of Balasuriya’s group will be available at the