Inspiration Follows Disaster

by Karen Deutsch '97

I went to Sri Lanka only a few weeks after the December 26 tsunami. I was on the emergency rotation with Oxfam Great Britain, a large international relief organization. This means that we were the first team in, and later, we would be replaced by people with longer contracts. I was hired as a public health promoter to conduct assessments of the camp conditions and to hire and train health education staff.

We worked in nine camps along the coastline. Our camps were divided by a broken bridge.Those on the south were controlled by the Sri Lankan army, and on the north side, they were controlled by the Tamil Tigers, the opposition army. This presented some complications for work, but on both sides, the people had suffered the same losses. Their homes had washed away with all of their belongings and, too often, they had lost family members: mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and even children. They had suffered immensely, and now, they were living in temporary shelters and they were reliant on what the aid agencies were able to give.

Different agencies took on different roles. Some distributed food items, others were responsible for shelter. Some provided medical care, clothing, school books, and even toys and games. Oxfam was responsible for the water and sanitation in the camps. We brought safe drinking water to the camps and we built latrines. My job was to assess how people were using the water, if there was enough water, and whether or not they were using the latrines. I always think that the Sri Lankans must have thought it a bit strange as my translator and I asked them probing questions about their toilet practices. We also distributed hygiene kits, with body soap, laundry soap, toothpaste and toothbrushes, and shoes to people who had left their homes in such a hurry that they did not have any. We worked day and night, seven days a week. On occasion, we were forced to stop because of political problems or even because of tsunami scares.

There is one day that I will never forget: I had arrived at work at about seven in the morning, and people were running out of the office and into the streets. They were shouting that another tsunami was coming. While we were all a bit afraid, we decided that it was probably not real and we should continue with our work. As we drove to the camps, the streets were crowded with people running, bikes, and trishaws piled high with people’s belongings. As we continued along our path, we realized that all of the schools had closed and parents were running frantically to gather their children.

I will never forget the children’s faces as they ran, their books clutched to their chests and fear in their eyes. I realized that I would never fully understand what they had been through. There was no tsunami that day, but fears of another tsunami continue to frighten people and, whether they are real or not, they bring alive the memories of a day that will never be forgotten.

What amazed me the most about Sri Lanka was the people. They welcomed us with open arms, and they never asked for anything. They sought to rebuild their lives with dignity and with resolve. They were kind hearted, and just like me, they were always smiling. They were truly inspirational.