12 December 2005
by Natasha Haradhvala
Thilini and her younger brother Krish on the field behind the tsunami relief camp in Sri Lanka where the children play. (Photo: Courtesy The Weston Town Crier)Weston, USA:
After a year at Mount Holyoke College, Weston High School graduate Julie Angiolillo decided to try something completely different. In early September she left for Sri Lanka to volunteer at the Kalutara North Tsunami Camp. After spending almost three months there, she flew back home at the end of November.
Part of the reason Angiolillo decided to go to Sri Lanka was that she considered her prior life experiences so "sheltered." She wanted to view the world from a larger perspective after growing up in such a privileged area of the world.
"I think it’s important to appreciate what you have and I was losing sight of what I have," said Angiolillo, who added that she found herself beginning to lose appreciation for her college education. She chose Sri Lanka because it had been hit hard by the tsunami, and she knew there would be a lot of work to do.
For Angiolillo, the trip served a double purpose.
"In going to Sri Lanka, I hoped to be able to help people who were in need and at the same time help myself figure out what I wanted to be doing," she said.
Classes at the tsunami camp were held in what Angiolillo describes as "a floor, ceiling and half walls" which are "crumbly and falling apart." She worked with the kids and helped teach them English for about an hour each day. The younger children would draw pictures and the volunteers would write English titles above the illustrations, so that the kids could begin to recognize English letters.
They also learned through reading books, 30 of which Angiolillo and another volunteer raised money for and purchased. Students who were more advanced did harder work, such as learning conjugations.
Angiolillo believes that a proficiency in English will be valuable to the children later on in their lives, as it can help them secure jobs in stores, hotels and other places frequented by English-speaking visitors.
Although much time was spent preparing the students, the volunteers also tried to fit in just as much time for games and fun activities. They bought the children a soccer ball, a jump rope and a Frisbee; the children have also been taught "red light, green light" and how to do the "hokey pokey."
“It’s also another way they learn English, through simple interactions with us - things like ‘pass the ball!’ and ‘over here!’” Angiolillo said.
She considers the connections she made with the children to be one of her greatest achievements.
“One little boy, Gayan, that has some social disorders and gets picked on by a lot of the other boys (took) to me and I love that I (was) able to be there for him,” Angiolillo said.
She added that the time volunteers spend with the children is especially valuable because many do not get enough attention at home.
When asked what work there is left to accomplish, Angiolillo replied, “Where do I start?” The tsunami camp inhabitants are faced with many problems, including bad hygiene, crime and a lack of food.
"Some people have responded to their new level of poverty by turning to crime and alcohol," she said. "Alcoholic fathers using what little money families have has shown itself to be an unsettlingly large problem."
Angiolillo describes the state of poverty as a "vicious cycle."
"These people need homes, but they can’t get homes until they get money, they can’t get money until they get jobs, and they can’t get jobs until they get settled, reliable lifestyles - which they can’t get until they get homes," Angiolillo said. "Throw in the government lowering rations, taking away electricity only to give it back a few days later, and trying to move families, and it makes it almost impossible for many of the families to create any semblance of stability."
She admits that at times the situation "feels hopeless."
Despite this, the victims demonstrate what she describes as a "remarkable resilience."
"Many are just thankful for what they have salvaged. It’s a very humbling thing to think about ... (I learned in Sri Lanka) to a degree that I never could at home that life throws you obstacles and the only way to get over them is to move on," Angiolillo said.
However, she and the other volunteers did all they could to help make life easier for the camp inhabitants. They scheduled a doctor to come twice a week and bought the drugs he would prescribe.
However, "before health can be good, hygiene needs to be good, and that won’t happen until these families have permanent housing with running water and toilets," Angiolillo said.
The volunteers also bought each family either a bed or a cupboard with the money they brought from home.
Although they could not afford to purchase food for all the families, they did buy the children ice cream cones when they went to market.
"I guess that’s not the healthiest thing they could be eating," she admits, but she says it’s worth it just to see how happy they looked eating their cones.
Angiolillo said she is "appalled by the Sri Lankan government’s handling of foreign aid after the disaster. Much-needed supplies sit in the airport because the government refuses to pay the import taxes. A ridiculous amount of money is sitting in the president’s hands because of disagreements over how much money should be given to the Sinhalese, the majority population, and how much should be given to the Tamil minority."
Because of this "complete inefficiency," she says, "these people have not seen enough aid despite the millions donated by Americans and others all over the world."
Next year Angiolillo plans to return to college, but believes this trip will affect her life hereafter "by making me much more conscious of what I have ... To think that I’ve spent on a pair of jeans the amount of money that a family could live off for two weeks is sickening.
"I’ve always known things like this, but to actually know the people who are struggling to feed their children is so different than seeing them on TV. Sri Lanka and the people I’ve met (there) will forever be in my heart, and I will continue to help them in whatever way I can."
(Natasha Haradhvala, 15, is a resident of Weston and a sophomore at the Commonwealth School in Boston.)