Archive for Thursday, January 13, 2005

Local effort under way to assist tsunami victims

January 13, 2005

In 1983, a violent civil war pushed Marion Mariathasan and his family away from their home country, Sri Lanka. Twenty-two years later it's an event no less tragic that beckons Mariathasan to return home.

The words naan akalaka help punna pooran may be as foreign to Americans as the Tamil language they're rooted in, but the meaning behind them isn't lost on Mariathasan, a Lawrence resident and systems technician at Monticello Trails Middle School in Shawnee.

"It means 'I want to help the people,'" said Mariathasan, who's vowed not to just sit on the sidelines and watch as his country struggles through rebuilding from a massive Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged his homeland and decimated its people.

The death toll from the natural disaster has risen past 150,000 lives total and, outside of Indonesia, Sri Lanka has sustained more casualties than any other country.

Thus far, the country has been at the center of an immense global relief effort as agencies such as the International Red Cross and UNICEF, among numerous others, have contributed to the assistance effort. For Mariathasan, the help people back home are receiving offers some comfort and reassurance.

But not enough.

This week, Mariathasan organized the North Sri Lankan Children's Fund, which at least three Lawrence businesses have agreed to contribute funds toward. He also plans to visit Sri Lanka in coming months so he can work with the Samaritan Children's Home, a destroyed orphanage on the country's eastern coast city of Batticaloa.

"Obviously, you have to have sorrow and pity for the people," Mariathasan said. "The worst part is the country was already in trouble."

Bogged in civil strife since the early 80s, Sri Lanka is a country that has seen its fair share of hard times. Mariathasan, who was born in the country's capitol, Colombo, fled Sri Lanka when he was 9 years old. His father, Stanislaus Mariathasan, also of Lawrence, was a politician who belonged to a political party dedicated to the unification of the country. War between rival factions spilled over to the public and caused the family to flee to the United States.

When the leader of his father's political party was assassinated, Mariathasan's family decided it was "high time to leave." They came to Kansas, where relatives were nearby. Mariathasan grew up in Emporia and is a 1999 graduate of Emporia State University.

"When you go to a new country, you'll go where at least you know one person," he said.

Although he's 20 years removed from his family's exodus to the United States, Mariathasan still feels a calling toward his homeland. He made return visits in 1990 and 1992 and since the disaster struck, his instincts toward helping his people have heightened. Upon talking with family in Sri Lanka and researching the assistance efforts in the post-tsunami wake, Mariathasan learned that assistance efforts in the north were slow coming.

"What I'm seeing is pretty much the southern part is where the focus is," he said. "(A lot) of the relief effort is in the south but not much is being done in the north, northeast. That's really where my focus came into play.

"(Relief) is not getting there fast enough or at all. It's just not making it up north, bottom line."

Mariathasan recalled Monday a story he recently heard that highlights the problem he sees with the relief efforts: people who lived on the coastal cities or in the south who had been displaced fled to find refuge in a Catholic church in the northern region. The people needed assistance, but because efforts were so concentrated in the south, little made it to them, Mariathasan said.

"People are sitting in the church and nothing is getting to them," he said.

Adding to the problem, as well as Mariathasan's urge to help, is news that some 9,000 children have been orphaned since the tsunami struck. A distant relative, Dayalan Sanders, runs the orphanage that Mariathasan will soon go help. Approximately 30 children are under the orphanage's care, but Sanders has had to find alternative housing for the children because their building was destroyed.

"They have no place to stay so the kids are in different places," Mariathasan said.

He's also heard that not all the money donated to the relief efforts was finding its way to the people it was pledged to help. No matter the good intentions of relief agencies, inevitably, not all the money gained from donations makes it to the people; some is lost through administration costs and bureaucratic red tape, Mariathasan said.

"They mean well, but they still have costs," he said.

His idea is to solicit donations locally and, upon his visit to Sri Lanka, document where the money is going so people can be reassured that 100 percent of the funds are getting to the right place.

He plans to leave the North Sri Lankan Children's Fund open indefinitely.

Although he's only in the initial stages of the local relief effort, Mariathasan has already received support. Three Lawrence businesses -- Henry's coffee shop and bar, Molly McGee's and The Crossing -- have pledged to help, and teachers from Monticello Trails have also offered assistance, Mariathasan said.

The undertaking Mariathasan is attempting is a daunting task, he said, but a noble one. For Mariathasan, there couldn't be a more worthy cause than lending aid to people in his native country.

He hopes others will realize the same and rally around his cause.

In some areas of the country, the poor are getting poorer and people who had little to begin with have even less, Mariathasan said.

"I've never done this before so I'm not (completely) sure what to do," he said. "It's to nice to know people are willing to help. I've always wanted to do something like this. I think here's my best chance, and a good place, to get started."

  • Where to donate: people interested may donate to the North Sri Lankan Children's Fund at any of the nine Capital City Bank branch locations in Topeka, Lawrence and Overland Park.

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