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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Crisis Corps Sri Lanka

Asia, Sri Lanka
Personal Essay

"Excuse me sir, but can you help me? I have lost my wife, my children, my house, my fishing boat, and I am a fisherman."—Sri Lankan fisherman

I arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on June 24, 2005—almost six months to the day after a tsunami devastated the island nation's eastern and southern coastlines. This would be my second tour as a Volunteer in South Asia. I had spent the previous two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal. My assignment in Nepal had been to help a women's handicraft organization develop its management and marketing skills. Having been a bank manager for several years, I found living, working, and sharing my skills with the Nepalese people to be a life-changing experience. So life changing, in fact, that I seized the opportunity to get back to that part of the world, the part of the world I called home for so long.

As soon as the Crisis Corps announced that they were seeking Volunteers to go to Sri Lanka for tsunami relief work, I submitted my application. Since I had lived in South Asia for two years, I thought it would be an easy transition.

My plane ticket was delivered to my house several weeks before my departure date. Those were some of the longest weeks of my life. In the meantime, the Peace Corps provided me with the e-mail addresses of my fellow Crisis Corps Volunteers and we soon met each other online. Two of them had served in Sri Lanka during their Peace Corps tours. Their stories served as our virtual guide to Sri Lanka.

One of the requirements for Crisis Corps service is that you have successfully completed a tour in the Peace Corps. We were a group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had served all over Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Eastern Europe. As Crisis Corps Sri Lanka group number one, little did we know how much we would come to rely on the skills we learned as Peace Corps Volunteers to fulfill our duties. We also did not realize, in the beginning, how much we would grow to depend on each other throughout our time in Sri Lanka.

Arriving at midnight, we were taken to the Hotel Renuka on Galle Road for what seemed like a quick nap before our orientation, training seminars, and newspaper interviews began. I remember waking early, looking out my hotel window, and seeing the Indian Ocean. It looked green and inviting. I asked myself, "Am I staring at the culprit of one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history?"

I would soon come to understand the power of that ocean through the recollections of tsunami victims I would interview, work with, live with, and try to help. Having grown up in a small fishing town myself in a family of fishermen, I was taught to respect the ocean. What the Sri Lankans experienced that fateful day after Christmas 2004 is incomprehensible for most of us. Imagine it's Sunday at 9:30 a.m., the day after Christmas, and you are going about your business as usual, maybe opening presents, on your way to church, or out for a stroll with your family. Suddenly, you look to the east and, with no warning, you see a 40-foot wall of churning, dark, foul-smelling water as far as the eye can see—and it's rapidly coming at you!

After five days of briefings, I was briefly posted in Trincomalee, which is located in the northeast of Sri Lanka. Then I was transferred to the Kalutara district in the southwest. I arrived in the morning and made arrangements at one of the few hotels in the area that survived the tsunami and had had the resources to become fully operational again. After settling in, I took a three-wheeled taxi to my office to meet the people I would be working with for the next three months. My counterpart was named Viraj. I like to describe him as jolly serious. He was typical of the Sri Lankan people—well mannered, soft spoken, kind hearted, but also with a serious underlying edge. That edge is no doubt the result of growing up in a turbulent environment, often with civil war being waged between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. Viraj was working to find shelter for thousands of his countrymen.

For three long, sweltering months, Viraj and I moved among our office, the local municipalities, and the southwestern coastline locating tsunami victims, otherwise known as "beneficiaries." I thought it odd to refer to these people as beneficiaries. From the devastation I saw, I was sure no one benefits from being in the way of a tsunami. Ultimately, I came to realize that these people who were victimized by the wave would receive housing benefits from the government and the international aid community, hence the term "beneficiary."

Viraj and I would often put in 12-hour days traveling throughout the southwestern district and talking with hundreds of would-be Sri Lankan beneficiaries. We explained to them where they could find help, and collected data. This data would be compiled in tracking reports, transmitted to central offices in Colombo, posted to websites, and used by the international aid organizations working throughout the country.

Together, Viraj and I accomplished many things during my three-month tour as a Crisis Corps Volunteer. We helped many of his homeless countrymen find shelter and the resources they needed to survive. One afternoon, we gave away more than a thousand bicycles to Sri Lankans who had lost their primary mode of transportation. Another achievement was convincing a stubborn district leader to facilitate weekly coordination meetings so that the international aid community in his district could use its resources without duplication.

Serving in Sri Lanka proved to be one of the greatest challenges I have experienced. After exhausting days, I would often go down to the debris-ridden beach and watch spectacular of sunsets. There, I would talk with the local residents—mostly fishermen—about their lives. Many of them asked me for nothing; they just wanted to talk—about anything. Because of my familiarity with fishing, I would often ask about the types of bait they used, the kinds of fish they were catching, and which method they used to fish. Rod and reel or did they use a net? I would ask their wives how they prepared their deliciously spicy fish curries.

Every now and then during these early evening walks on the beach, I would meet Sri Lankans who desperately needed help and would ask if I could do anything for them. Because I was a foreigner, they assumed I was wealthy or had access to the billions of dollars of aid money pouring into their country. On one particular occasion, a Sri Lankan fisherman approached me and began the conversation: "Excuse me, sir, can you help me? I have lost my wife, my children, my house, my fishing boat, and I am a fisherman." Even after three months of hearing similar stories, I thought that this was unquestionably one of the most devastating stories I had heard in my life. I saw the look in his eyes; he was painfully serious. All I could do was to put my arm around his shoulder and say to him, "Someone will be around soon to help you; his name is Viraj." The next morning after saying goodbye to my office mates, I told Viraj of my last encounter. Viraj assured me he would visit the area and see what he could do. I still think about that encounter, and probably always will. 

About the Author

Darren D. Defendeifer

was a Crisis Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka in 2005 and a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal from 2002 to 2004. (The Crisis Corps has been renamed “Peace Corps Response.")

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