Sri Lanka: what it
means to be human
By Dr. Naresh Gunaratnam
He wanted to show me the only photo he had of his wife, who died in the 2004 tsunami. The photo was blurry and cropped from a group photo; his wife’s face was magnified. He kept it in a tattered album which was protected with multiple sleeves of plastic which he carefully peeled away so I could see his wife.
His wife was swept away in the waves of the tsunami, leaving him to care for his young daughter and son. I had led a medical relief group there soon after the catastrophe, so I fully appreciated the devastation of the event where more than 40,000 had died.
He was a laborer and earned about $3 U.S. a day, which was insufficient to feed his family. His fragile, emaciated body bore witness to years of malnutrition. Out of desperation, he had brought his daughter, Sivaranjani, to Grace orphanage, where she has been thriving for the past 10 years. She has excelled academically, is a member of a regional champion girls’ cricket team, speaks fluent English and is considered a leader by the other 35 girls who live at Grace. She hopes to become a teacher.
On this day, 20 residents of Ann Arbor, including 10 children, had descended into his small house to dig trenches, lay pipe and provide him with running water at his home for the first time. It had been increasingly difficult for him, given his progressive arthritis, to carry buckets of water from the end of the road to his home.
Many of the children were shocked at the abject poverty they witnessed. They were awed that he slept on a board covered with a sheet or that he cooked over an open fire using wood. We all soaked in the smells of the fresh flowers blooming in his yard and had an audience of curious villagers as we worked.
After hours of work in the hot sun we were successful in providing him with running water. As we left, he grabbed my hand and pulled it to his heart and with tears in his eyes, he said in Tamil, “You and your friends have restored the happiness in my life and given hope to my daughter and for that I cannot thank you enough.” I walked away with tears in my eyes, unable to speak and humbled by the realization that I had a better understanding of what it means to be human.
The author, Dr. Naresh Gunaratnam, is a gastroenterologist with Huron Gastro and president of VeAhavta, the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that runs Grace.
Sri Lanka connection