Folio News Story
January 6, 2006

A wave of compassion

When his family and country needed help, Laki Goonewardene responded

by Lee Craig
An aerial photograph (top) shows the Sri Lankan coastline. Debris was strewn across the coastline in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
An aerial photograph (top) shows the Sri Lankan
coastline. Debris was strewn across the coastline in
the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.

When a tsunami hammered his homeland in December of 2004, Dr. Laki Goonewardene could hardly believe the scenes of devastation and salvation that played out on television news broadcasts.

He remembers watching the story of 20 children from the Samaritans Children's Home orphanage who escaped the tsunami, although their home was destroyed.

"The man in charge had the presence of mind to put the children into a boat and take them out into the sea, just before the tsunami," said Goonewardene, a professor in the Department of Agriculture, Food, and Nutritional Science.

"The nature of the tsunami is that it only gains momentum when it hits land, otherwise it travels under water."

Goonewardene felt compelled to return to his homeland with whatever help he could round up. He travelled to the tsunami-stricken nation several weeks later with clothing, medicine, and $10,000 raised by Alberta church groups, agencies, and individuals who wanted to help people recover from the disaster.

He joined his sister, Indraneela Fernando, who lives in Colombo and is the president of the YWCA in Sri Lanka, and began distributing money and aid to people injured and left destitute by the tsunami.

"It was a huge disaster. A number of organizations were helping, but as an individual I could also help. When it happened, a lot of people, a lot of co-workers, were asking me, 'What's happening? Can we help out?' Then I said, 'OK, I will go.' I wanted to go to the refugee camps and help out individuals because there was an immediate need," said Goonewardene.

"We may not be able to change the world, but we can improve the quality of life for a few."

Although the YWCA's major project in later months was the construction of permanent housing, temporary shelters were clearly the first priority, along with food and medical care, Goonewardene said.

The orphanage received some of the money he had brought to help rebuild, but some Sri Lankans, including the orphans, faced another complication. When it came time to build permanent structures, he added, doing so proved difficult for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) because government policy had not been clearly determined: the size of housing units and where to build them were in question. As well, the government announced that housing should be built no less than 100 metres from the ocean, which also complicated plans.

The NGOs "tried their best to improve the quality of life for people," said Goonewardene, until the housing decisions had been made by the government. These groups had often leased or bought land to operate on, driving up the price of buying or leasing land. A building or land was hard for many NGOs to buy or lease.

Other problems needed to be solved as well. It was as though the nation was starting all over, with nothing.

"People lost everything," he said. "They needed food, shelter, clothing, cooking utensils. In some cases they had lost their identity cards or their land titles. Some government offices in the areas had been affected and files destroyed. How do you prove who you are? You have practically lost your identity."

And yet that could be the least of their worries. Goonewardene will never forget, in his travels through Sri Lanka, seeing the wreckage of a train in which a reported 1,500 people died. It has been estimated that 31,000 people died in the tsunami in Sri Lanka alone, and approximately 2.5 million were left homeless.

They weren't left hopeless, however, despite enduring years of civil war capped off by the horrors the tsunami brought to the country's shores. Goonewardene is as overwhelmed by the care and giving that continues to this day as he is by the devastation he witnessed first hand.

He is still amazed and touched at the amount of money donated for victims of the tsunami and by the fact that people he knows, or has met still, want to donate.

"Everyone still wants to know where they should donate money where it will do the most good. They don't care about which charity the money goes to," said Goonewardene, who was born in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, but has lived in Canada since 1972. "The response was overwhelming."