When a cousin suffered a broken leg, Joel Saverymuthapulle’s family decided to call off an after-Christmas beach trip at the last moment and stay home instead.
Little did they know that this simple change of plans would save their lives.
Saverymuthapulle, a 23-year-old Sri Lankan graduate student at Portland State University, is from the inland edge of Colombo, the west coast capital city of Sri Lanka. He took advantage of winter break to return home and reunite with his family.
He is just one of nearly 300 students attending Portland State University who come from the Asian area struck by the Dec. 26 tsunami, which has claimed at least 160,000 lives and left millions of others homeless, grieving and struggling to rearrange their lives.
That morning, instead of sitting on the beach near tens of thousands of others who would be swallowed by the tsunami’s waves, Saverymuthapulle was sitting safely at home with his mother, brother and father. They had all risen early to catch a cricket game on television.
"You can say ‘I feel so lucky,’ but you don’t – you know, you can’t put it into words," he said.
It was through a television news interruption during the game that Saverymuthapulle first learned of the tsunami waves, which were striking the edges of the country all around him.
At first, he said, the news report did not appear serious; rather, the announcer came on and said something like, "There are a few floods happening in Sri Lanka. Nobody’s hurt at the moment, but there’s property loss."
Since that was how the news came in, Saverymuthapulle said, his initial reaction was, "It’s not that bad. Put the game back on."
The game coverage resumed, but the news broke in again within minutes.
This time the announcer said, "A tsunami has struck, water is coming in." The announcer maintained that there were no life losses and told people not to be afraid.
But this was when Saverymuthapulle and his family began to worry. They were safe where they were, many miles inland, but they began phoning family members throughout the country, as the news took over the television in their home.
After struggling with busy phone lines, Saverymuthapulle and his parents were eventually able to reach family members and learned that they were safe. Then, he says, the family calmed down quite a bit.
Saverymuthapulle hopped on his motorcycle and went to collect another cousin of his who was home alone at the time and closer to the shore in Colombo.
Once back at home with his cousin, he and his family spent the entire rest of the day watching the news.
"We were just stunned," he said. "You can’t just believe it, so we were in disbelief, actually."
Though waves struck around the capital city, Colombo was spared along with Saverymuthapulle’s entire 60-member family.
A friend of his from the eastern coast who was working in Colombo was also spared, but Saverymuthapulle later learned that 35 members of his friend’s family were not.
The day after the tsunami waves struck, and after reports announced that no other waves were expected, Saverymuthapulle took his motorcycle with his cousin to the eastern shore to see for themselves what was happening.
"I saw a few bodies, broken homes, brown water. The stench was bad," Saverymuthapulle said. He and his cousin both returned to Colombo in shock. "We didn’t feel the sorrow," he said. "It hit us a little later; [it] started to seep in little by little as the death toll started rising."
His family donated dry rations at their church, which is Catholic, whereas 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists.
Their wedding anniversary celebration that had been planned for Dec. 29 was canceled, as were similar celebrations of others all across the country, according to Saverymuthapulle. "People didn’t feel like celebrating," he said. "People were talking about death."
On New Year’s Eve, which he said is normally "crazy with firecrackers" in Sri Lanka, there was nothing but "pin-drop silence."
He flew back to Portland on New Year’s Day, and has returned to classes along with the rest of Portland State’s students.
He went to a recent meeting that approximately 30 students and faculty attended in order to brainstorm ideas for people at PSU to help raise donation funds for tsunami relief efforts.
And Sri Lanka needs the funds, he added. In a country where many kids have been left without their families, Saverymuthapulle says, "There are more children than orphanages to support them. I mean it’s not America. It’s a very poor country."
Saverymuthapulle remains in frequent contact with his family, but says he is doing well at PSU, and that he appreciates the concern here.
"I’m thankful for so much caring," he said. "It’s awesome. I never expected it to go so far."
On a positive note, there is a possibility that the devastation from the tsunami may help strengthen Sri Lanka by relieving some tensions caused by a bloody, 20-year civil war, which ended three years ago.
"It’s crazy," Saverymuthapulle said, "Twenty years of war killed 64,000. The tsunami …," he trailed off. It took nearly 40,000 lives in Sri Lanka in just a single morning.
Narit Puttaraksar is from Bangkok, Thailand, but did not return to his home country for the winter break. Instead, he was here in Portland when the tsunami struck and learned of it much the same way as many in the United States did: CNN.
The 26-year-old graduate student and president of the Thai Student Association immediately called his parents to see if they were okay.
He then followed developments on television and Thai news via the internet.
Puttaraksar’s initial reaction was shock and disbelief.
"It can’t be that serious," he thought. "This doesn’t happen."
"The first day, the second day I didn’t feel very much," Puttaraksar said. It was when the death toll started climbing that he just wanted to do something, anything, to help.
About 12 members of the Thai Student Association held a meeting to discuss ways they could help raise donation funds at PSU, and then Puttaraksar and Vice President Pisek Gerdsri took their ideas to the aforementioned brainstorming meeting.
Though the waves have come and gone, Puttaraksar said, "People still need money and tools to rebuild infrastructure."
He is appreciative of efforts to raise donation funds like those at PSU by people who are not connected to the tsunami-affected areas.
"They don’t even know what it’s like there and they want to help," he said.
Hisham Qaisi is a 19-year-old English major at PSU and a U.S. Muslim. Qaisi’s parents immigrated to the United States as Palestinian refugees from Jordan in the 1970s.
Though Qaisi does not come from the tsunami affected area, his religion links him to Indonesia, one of the most badly devastated countries with over 100,000 lost lives, where 88 percent of the population is Muslim.
As vice president of both the Muslim Student Association and the Arab-Persian Student Association, Qaisi was invited to speak at a Campus Ministry reflective service last week, where he said that he believes the tsunami is, "a wake up call for us to realize just how powerful that Allah really is."
"For those Muslims that don’t pray," he said. "For those Muslims that don’t practice, this is a reminder."
The interpretation of the tragedy’s significance may seem somewhat dark, but Qaisi does see something positive coming out of the devastation.
Sadly enough, it can take atrocities to create unity and greater giving.
"The positive outcome will be you’ll see a renewed sense of unity throughout the Muslim world," he said.
Particularly now he said, since it is a holy time for Muslims. The Hajj pilgrimage a journey millions of Muslims take every year to gather and pray in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is beginning soon.
It is marked by the Islamic holiday of Eid Al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, which can be celebrated in Portland this weekend at the Oregon Convention Center.
According to Qaisi, about 6,000 people gathered there to pray last time. He expects that even more Muslims will attend this year in response to the gravity of the tsunami tragedy.
"It is a time of inward reflection," he said. "One hundred-fifty thousand people dying, no matter where or who, makes you stop and take a step back."
|Support available for students in need
Dr. Alan Yeo, a psychiatrist at Portland State’s Student Health and Counseling Services (SHAC), wants students affected by the tsunami disaster to know that support is available to them on campus if they feel they need it.
SHAC has licensed social workers and psychologists available for students to meet and talk with, as well as psychiatrists who can prescribe medicine for students are experiencing panic attacks or are having trouble sleeping.
Meetings are free to students taking nine credit hours or more. Prescriptions may incur a small charge.
Yeo said that students affected by the tsunami will likely experience a normal shock or grief response. Some might experience difficulty concentrating or sleeping, and may feel tension around the neck and back, he said. Other symptoms might include headaches, nausea, anxiety or irritability.
Some of these symptoms are to be expected, Yeo said, but if they begin to interfere with the student’s ability to do his or her work or if they persist then the student should seek help.
Few students have actually come to SHAC as a result of the tsunami tragedy, according to Yeo, but he acknowledges that different culture groups deal with the stress differently.
"Talk therapy is pretty accepted in the western culture," he said. But Asian cultures generally have stronger community ties.
When asked about support available at PSU, Thai student Narit Puttaraksar said, "I feel there’s people that care, [but] Thai people don’t need psychiatrists." He added that he does not understand why people in the United States need them.
In the case that they do need to talk with someone, counselors are available most days on a walk-in basis for students who have an immediate need. Otherwise, students may call and make an appointment.
"Some of them may not have a community here and may be cut off from family," Yeo said.
In extreme cases, counselors can help students to get an excused decrease in school workload or even a temporary leave of absence.
For students that prefer an alternative to SHAC for assistance, Yeo suggested the Asian Health and Service Center, which has locations in Portland and Beaverton. The center offers many services, including acupuncture and herbal therapy.