A survivor's trek back to Sri Lanka
BY CHRISTINE ARMARIO / STAFF WRITER
December 30, 2005
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.
After narrowly escaping the tsunami's wrath in Sri Lanka and returning home to Babylon, Laura Dunham thought she would never return to the island. The memories were too painful. The fear too great.
Then she got a phone call. It was from a Sri Lankan man she had never met before who lived in the Five Towns area and had read her account of the tsunami in the newspaper. "I'm very sad to hear you will never go back to Sri Lanka," he told her. "I'm hoping you can change your mind."
So she did. Dunham, a part-time dean and teacher at Valley Stream South High School, first went in March, bringing $20,000 raised by students. She stayed six months. She came back again this week, to commemorate the anniversary.
Standing on the beach, she observed two minutes of silence around 9:30 a.m. on Monday, the time the tsunami struck, and later attended pirith ceremonies, where monks chant blessings for the lost. In the evening, she helped distribute 50,000 coconut oil candles in clay jars.
"The ocean can give life and easily take life," Dunham said from Sri Lanka in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It was important for me, personally, to have some closure."
In the 12 months since the tsunami, Dunham and other foreign tourists have buoyed the country's rehabilitation efforts, rebuilding houses, providing funds for orphans, and restoring a school's sports field, through the work of two charities - AdoptSriLanka and the Friends of Unawatuna, the beachside village where Dunham was staying.
None rank as important to her, though, as helping Somarthna, a fisherman whose two boats were destroyed.
With her school's funds, she bought Somarthna a 17-foot blue and white boat. He named it Wasana - the Singhalese word for "lucky." He has since hired two employees, and all three make a livelihood catching tuna fish in the ocean.
The island, she says, has made a substantial recovery, especially in tourist areas such as Unawatuna. But much is left to be done. Some of the many hundreds of thousands left homeless still do not have homes, she said, living in tents or temporary wooden structures. Emotionally, though, things are more upbeat.
"I think the year anniversary kind of puts an end to that period of time when the mourning is over," Dunham said.
She had been feet away from being engulfed in the water, which rose to the balcony of her second-story guest room. A Sri Lankan family provided her and others mats to sleep on, and rice, vegetables and dal to eat.
The tsunami instilled her not only with a mission to help, but a greater interest in Buddhism, Sri Lanka's predominant religion, and a new perspective on the United States.
"There's just way too much excess going on in our country," Dunham said. "People throw things away and don't appreciate what they have."
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.