TRAGEDY AVERTED: Quick-thinking pastor and his wife save 28 orphans in Sri Lanka
Thursday, December 30, 2005
© Copyright 2005 John Lancaster, Washington Post.Navalady, Sri Lanka -- Two hundred yards away from the beach, in the orphanage he had built, Dayalan Sanders lounged in his bed early Sunday morning. He was thinking, he said, about the sermon he was due to deliver in the chapel in half an hour. A few yards away, most of the 28 children under his care were still in their rooms, getting ready for services.
Then he heard the pounding of feet in the corridor outside his room, and his wife burst through the door, a frantic look on her face. "The sea is coming!" she said. "Come! Come! Look at the sea!"
Thanks to quick thinking, blind luck and an outboard motor that somehow started on the first pull, the orphans and their caretakers joined the ranks of countless survivors of the epic disaster that so far has claimed tens of thousands of lives in Sri Lanka and 10 other countries.
Sanders is a Sri Lankan-born missionary and U.S. citizen whose mother and siblings live in Gaithersburg, Md., where he once owned a house. A member of the country's Tamil ethnic minority, he studied to become an accountant before founding a missionary group and moving to Switzerland in the 1980s to work with Tamil refugees displaced by fighting between Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan government forces.
In 1994, Sanders founded the Samaritan Children's Home in Navalady, a small fishing village that occupies a narrow peninsula on Sri Lanka's economically depressed east coast. He built the orphanage with donations and money from the sale of his Maryland home, he said.
With the ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other, the four-acre orphanage was a strikingly beautiful place, set in a grove of stately palms. The children -- some of whom had lost their parents in the civil war -- lived four to a room in whitewashed cottages with red tile roofs, attending school in the village nearby. Bougainvillea spilled from concrete planters.
"People used to come and take photographs of the flowers," said Sanders, a handsome, youthful-looking 50-year-old who peppers his conversation with Scripture. "They used to say it looked like Eden."
On Sunday morning, his wife, Kohila, said she had been alerted by one of the orphans, who burst into the kitchen as Kohila was mixing powdered milk for their 3-year-daughter. Kohila ran into the brilliant sunshine and saw the building sea. Even the color of the water was wrong: It looked, she said, "like ash."
Kohila ran to summon her husband, who went outside and looked toward the ocean. There on the horizon, he said, was a "30-foot wall of water," racing toward the wispy casuarina pines that marked the landward side of the beach.
With barely any time to think, let alone act, he ran toward the lagoon, where the orphanage's boat chafed at a pier. By then, many of the children had come run outside, some of them half-dressed. Sanders shouted as loud as he could, urging them all toward the boat.
Desperate, he asked if anyone had seen his daughter, and a moment later one of the older girls thrust the toddler into his arms. Sanders heaved her into the boat, along with the other small children, as the older ones, joined by his wife and the orphanage staff, clambered aboard.
One of his employees yanked on the starter cord, and the engine sputtered instantly to life -- something that Sanders swears never happened before. "Usually, you have to pull it four or five times," he said.
Crammed with more than 30 people, the dangerously overloaded launch roared into the lagoon at almost precisely the same moment that the wall of water overwhelmed the orphanage, swamping its one-story buildings to the rafters.
"It was a thunderous roar, and black sea," he said.
As the compound receded behind the boat, Sanders said, he watched in amazement as the surging current smashed a garage and ejected a brand-new Toyota pickup. "The roof came flying off -- it just splintered in every direction," he recalled. "I saw the Toyota just pop out of the garage."
The orphans' ordeal did not end when their boat pulled away from the shore. Not only was water cascading over the lagoon side of the peninsula, but it also was pouring in directly from the mouth of the estuary about 2 miles away. Sanders feared the converging currents would swamp the small craft.
He raised his hand in the direction of the flood and shouted, "I command you in the name of Jesus -- stop!" The water then seemed to "stall, momentarily," he said. "I thought at the time I was imagining things."
As it made for the mouth of the lagoon, the boat was broadsided and nearly capsized by the torrent pouring over the peninsula. "The children were very frightened," Kohila Sanders recalled. "We were praying, 'God help us, God help us.' "
Eventually, the boat made it to the opposite shore, to the city of Batticaloa about a mile and a half distant. The Sanderses, their daughter and about a dozen of the orphaned and now displaced children have found temporary refuge in a tiny church; the rest have been sent elsewhere.
The scene at the orphanage was one of utter devastation. The grounds were covered by up to three feet of sand. Several buildings, including the staff quarters, were entirely gone, and the others were damaged beyond repair.
Surveying the wreckage, Sanders broke down and cried. But at other moments, he was philosophical about his loss. "If there was anyone who should have got swept away by this tidal wave, it should have been us," he said. "We were eyeball to eyeball with the wave."
You may contact the Daylan Sanders
Samaritan Home Orphanage at the following address:
3 Treworthy Road
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
There will be a fundraiser open house for Samaritan Home Relief, from 3-6 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 8 2005,
at 3 Treworthy Road in Gaithersburg, MD
For more information, call 301-279-2947. Contributions can be sent, with checks designed to Samaritan Home Relief, to the address above.
Mission To Shelter Orphans Stymied
After Tsunami, Costs Skyrocket
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page B01
BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka -- The search for real estate in an area economically ravaged by the tsunami has confronted Dayalan Sanders with a surprising problem.
Batticaloa -- for years an economic wasteland as a result of Sri Lanka's long-running civil war -- has turned into a boomtown. Hotels are overflowing, restaurants are packed, and late-model four-wheel-drive vehicles bearing the names of such agencies as CARE and the Red Cross roar through town. Signs on houses advertise that they've been converted into headquarters for various aid groups.
That demand for housing has sent prices soaring. Sanders, who gave up a life in Gaithersburg and returned to his native land to operate an orphanage, found himself priced out of the market when he set out to find a new home for the 28 children in his care.
A month after Sanders and his orphans made a miraculous escape when the tsunami swept in, he found two houses in need of repair, for which the landlord wanted $500 a month for both -- paid a year in advance.
That's at least twice the normal rate, fueled, Sanders said, by the humanitarian groups who need to house their workers and supplies.
"We can't compete with them," said Sanders, a U.S. citizen whose family still lives in Gaithersburg. A decade ago, he founded the Samaritan Children's Home in a small fishing village a few miles from Batticaloa.
For the past four weeks, Sanders, his family and many of the orphans have crowded into a one-story church as he was outbid for one house after another.
Sanders, 50, earned worldwide attention and admiration when he rescued his family and the 28 children in his care from the tsunami. He loaded them into a small motorboat just as a 30-foot wall of water approached, and he outmaneuvered the raging water to take them to safety.
Many others in the Batticaloa area, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, weren't as fortunate. More than 2,800 were killed; 2,300 were injured; and 1,000 are missing. Thousands were left homeless and jobless and now live in tents scattered across the area.
During the tsunami, Dayalan Sanders, formerly of Gaithersburg, rescued 28 orphans in his care. He plans to build them a new home.
Among the homeless were the residents of the Samaritan Children's Home. The idyllic four-acre compound -- dotted with cabanas and whitewashed cottages on a sliver of beach slipped between the ocean and a shimmering lagoon -- was washed away.
Sanders, who had funded the facility himself in part by selling his Gaithersburg townhouse, had no insurance.
His mother and two sisters, who all live in Gaithersburg, have been energetically attempting to raise the $400,000 or so needed to rebuild the orphanage. At a dinner this month at Grace United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg, they raised $140,000: $70,000 from the event and $70,000 from a matching contribution from Ford Motor Co. Other contributions have also flowed in.
Sanders is stunned by the pace at which donations have mounted in the United States. "I saved penny by penny to build the [orphanage]. I thought I was never going to be able to rebuild," he said. "I never thought that people from the U.S. would be so magnanimous."
But he worries that the money could go quickly in Batticaloa's overheated economy. He needs to rent bulldozers and earthmovers to clear out the rubble of the orphanage before he can start rebuilding. He'll have to hire laborers and bring in building materials -- all of which are in high demand as Batticaloa digs out.
Other areas in Sri Lanka have seen the same phenomenon as relief groups pour into the country -- providing shelter, food and medical care, replacing possessions and rebuilding homes.
Since the tsunami, at least 200 humanitarian aid organizations have arrived, said David Evans, a representative of aid groups to Sri Lanka's disaster management agency, the Centre for National Operations. The exact count may be much higher because not all groups are registering with the CNO, he said.
But aid groups say they aren't to blame for price escalation. They say businesses and real estate owners who increase prices when they see the groups coming are responsible. Aid agencies have seen this happen in other disaster areas where housing and other infrastructure is scarce, such as in Sudan, said Sid Balman Jr., a spokesman for InterAction, which represents U.S.-based international humanitarian organizations.
"We're as upset about it as anyone," Balman said. "I think it is a practice akin to ambulance-chasing."
Until Sanders finalizes a deal for a temporary home in Batticaloa, 16 of the orphanage's children; Sanders's wife, Kohila; and their 3-year-old daughter, Hadassah, are living in the small church in a residential district. The other orphans have been sent to relatives.
In contrast to their sunny cottages on the beach in Navaladi, they are crowded into a dark one-story building with crumbling cement walls and a dirt yard that springs a small stream when it rains. They share the facility -- and its sole bathtub and toilet -- with the pastor of the church and three church staff members.
Sanders' wife shook her head as she gestured toward the wood-burning stove in the kitchen -- a slab of cement protruding from the wall -- in the small, soot-streaked kitchen and the two-burner propane stove on a rickety stand. She misses the two kitchens of the orphanage.
Instead of living four to a room, all the girls heap their belongings in a small outbuilding and sleep on a floor of the common area at night. The boys get the porch.
Kohila Sanders said they take the children to the beach on weekends to help them cope with the loss of their sunny waterside home.
Dayalan Sanders and some of the older boys have gone out to the orphanage site to clean up before the heavy equipment moves in. To save on equipment-rental costs, they have broken up cement with pickaxes and carted away debris in wheelbarrows.
It hasn't been easy, Sanders said. He has lost much. The letters Winston Churchill wrote to his grandfather, an English barrister. His wedding photos. His laptop computer.
"My whole life is gone," said Sanders, heavy-eyed with fatigue during a trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital and its largest city. While there, he purchased a 15-passenger van and a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle to replace the orphanage's two vehicles that were sucked into the sea. Next, he raced from one government office to another, trying to replace such documents as the children's birth certificates and the deed to his land.
The purchase of a new, larger boat, with a bigger engine, is also in the works, he said.
If the money is there, he would like to double the capacity of the orphanage, he said, because some parents who lost spouses in the tsunami have asked him to take their children. He would also like to build a vocational training center to train the orphans and other youths in the village in such skills as masonry, computer skills and sewing.
Maybe he could also add a study area and a dining hall for the children, he said.
"This time around, I want to build it nicely for them," he said. "We are going to rebuild as fast as we can."