Student group raises funds to help tsunami survivors

A group leader said the goal is to raise at least $40,000 to help Sri Lankans.

Liala Helal

Half a world away, University doctoral student Gertrude Ira Hewapathirana’s mind is still on home.

In her native Sri Lanka, the rebuilding continues for survivors of December’s tsunamis in Southeast Asia. On Saturday, she and members of the Sri Lankan Student Association, a student group, took a step to do what they can to help.

At the Christians in Action University Church, approximately 85 people attended a Sri Lankan cultural event that proposed a project called Friendship Village, which aims to build houses and provide basic necessities to tsunami survivors.

The group raised approximately $1,500 at the event for construction of new homes, Hewapathirana said. Pan Asian Tsunami Healing, another student group, matched the donations, bringing the total to more than $3,000.

The fund-raising event also educated people about Sri Lankan cultures, traditions and religions and how the tsunami has affected the small island nation.

Hewapathirana said this project is unique because it is run by University students and is a long-term plan to not only build houses but friendships as well.

Donors will be able to see the results of their contributions, because the project will link donors to Sri Lankan families, she said.

Since the tsunami, more than 1 million people are homeless, approximately 40,000 are dead, nearly 6,000 are missing and approximately 100,000 homes destroyed, Hewapathirana said.

The group wants to raise a minimum of $40,000 to build 20 houses and then possibly expand into other tsunami-affected areas, Hewapathirana said.

Some refugees are currently sheltered in small tents, “without even a cloth to lay on the floor to sleep on,” Hewapathirana said.

New houses must be built soon, she said. The rain season began two weeks ago and will continue for several months. Refugees will find it impossible to be sheltered by only tents, she said.

Sunithera Kanapathipillai, an event organizer, said the most important thing is for people to trust the group.

“It’s important to build trust so people will be willing to support us not only with money but with time and effort,” she said.

The group is working on recruiting more help and is dedicated on working on the project until Sri Lanka is “back to normal,” Kanapathipillai said.

“I know a lot of people are wanting to help but don’t know how,” Kanapathipillai said. “We can teach them how they can help.”

Hewapathirana said that she came up with this “powerful idea” the morning after the tsunami hit.

She said she has devoted her life to helping people in need and founded two organizations in 1988 with her husband, who is currently in Sri Lanka.

Group members are planning on going to the country this summer to help, she said.

Organizers entertained guests with traditional and modern dances, slideshows and traditional foods.

Rita Rae, a graduate music student, and Erica Sigauke, a University alumna, wrote and dedicated a song to the tsunami victims and performed it at the event.

The song, titled “Believe, Have Faith,” was a “call to action to offer something, whatever their gift may be,” Rae said.

Wearing traditional “java clothes” from Zimbabwe, Sigauke said they felt very motivated to work on the song “whole-heartedly, because we know we’re doing it for a good cause.”

Children at the event said they wanted to help.

Joey Temali and Claire Temali, a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, collected their change, put it in a resealable plastic bag and donated it to organizers.

“I wanted to do it so the people (in Sri Lanka) could get more food and get money to build more houses,” Joey Temali said.

Four months after tsunamis tore through the region, Mihailo Temali, a University alumnus, said he is amazed at how quickly people have forgotten about the tragedy.

“The world was riveted by this catastrophe, and now, we’ve sort of moved on and forgotten about it,” he said.