US Aid Not Reaching Tamils in Sri Lanka

Michael F. Byrne, May 12, 2005

CHESTER TWP Ė A Cornell Medical College professor who toured tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka, told Lioness Club members on Thursday, May 5, that she was "embarrassed" by the lack of U.S. aid that is reaching the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka.

"Thousands of children were killed by the tsunami, and the north and east sections were devastated because people built their houses too close to the beach," said Jennifer Roberts, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Cornell Medical College in New York City.

Roberts just returned from a three-week visit to the island nation and told what she saw there to members of the Chester Lioness Club.  She was a guest of Sri Haran, a Tamil native who has been living in Chester Township for eight years with his wife and children.

Another Tamil native at the meeting was Rajahbala Veerasingham, a pathologist and research associate at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y.

Roberts is an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder and was recognized for helping New York City firefighters after Sept. 11, 2001.

She said the reason so many children died was because they were picking up fish that appeared on the beach just before the tsunami hit.

"Aid from America for (the North and East parts of the island) is nonexistent," Roberts said.

Roberts traveled to the island nation as a private citizen with Veerasingham and others.  Her expertise in post-traumatic stress disorder benefited native counselors in Sri Lanka.

Government Resistance

Roberts said America, Europe, and Scandinavia have given "tons of money" in aid to Sri Lanka but because of civil strife, the islandís government sends virtually no aid to Tamils living in the north and east.  The government-controlled territory in the south and west is faring no better, because relief efforts are so disorganized, Roberts said.

But, she said, she has a deep respect for Tamils because they are taking care of their own with very limited resources.

"My feeling as a U.S. citizen is that I am very proud of my country," Roberts said.  "As a country, we raised a tremendous amount of money, but it is not going to help all the people on the island."

The Tamils, who live in the north and east, are primarily Hindu as compared with the Singhalese majority who control the government and are primarily Buddhist, she said.

There has been civil strife between the ethnic groups since the British left the island more than 50 years ago.  A bloody civil war erupted more than 20 years ago.  More than 500,000 Tamils, nearly a fourth of the Tamil population on the island, left for other countries, according to Haran.

Sri Lanka also has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, primarily in the 15 to 30 age group, Roberts said.  There are tremendous pressures on young people to get into school, but the government has placed restrictions on the Tamils seeking an education, she said.

Tons of aid are sitting in the islandís capitol, Colombo, because of government interference or "corruption," Roberts said.

Roberts traveled to areas in Sri Lanka controlled by the Tamil Tigers, known as the L.T.T.E.  The group has been labeled "terrorists" by the U.S. State Department.  The outside aid is being barred from the Tiger-controlled sections but Roberts said a group calling itself the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization is doing its best to help the people.

"It was organized.  There were schools open for children," she said.  "They were building temporary houses, and giving boats to fisherman."

When she visited the government-controlled South, things were even worse than in the north.

"People would come up to us and say they had nothing.  They would ask us for our help.  No one in the North was going hungry like they did in the South," Roberts said.

Countries who sent aid would have their flags attached to the tents or goods they sent, she said.

"I didnít see any American flags in the North, but in the South they were plentiful.  I came across an entire hospital that had been donated by America," Roberts said.

"In the North, I was embarrassed by the lack of American aid.  There was some aid from Norway, who had brokered a peace agreement between the two factions on the island," she said.  "There was also some aid from Germany.  Iím part German, and I wanted to tell the people there I was German, not American."

Roberts said she traveled to the island to work as a teacher of counselors to help the people cope with the devastating trauma of the tsunami.

"After 9/11, we learned the most important thing to do is to get people back into their routine.  Get them doing their everyday things again," Roberts said.

Roberts said she stood shoulder to shoulder with one Tamil woman who had to bury her children.  She stood there in solidarity with the woman and other counselors.  But there was little she could do other than offer comforting words.

Roberts said many women, men and children were depressed over losing loved ones, but there were no antidepressants to be found in the North.

Attempts to bring medicine into the country are hampered by government officials who seize the medications, according to Sri Haran, who often visits his homeland.

One way to get around the Singhalese government is to bribe government officials into allowing shipments to proceed to the north and east, said Veerasingham.

One Lioness asked how people can be confident that their donations will help the people.

Roberts said "the TRO is reliable.  They know the area and they know how to help their people."

Haran said he has raised about $14,000 so far in Chester to help tsunami victims in his homeland, and the TRO has raised $1.6 million in America, and the Tamil Health Organization has raised about $300,000 so far.

Haran is still trying to raise more money in the Chesters.

Roberts said the TRO is "dedicated to helping their people."

Haran said he was planning to return to Sri Lanka for business on Monday, May 9, and stay for a couple of weeks.  He will also visit the North section of the island to see what aid he can bring.

Roberts said she never felt threatened in Sri Lanka, and "the food was delicious.  Everything was prepared fresh."

Sri Haran said temporary housing in the North is made of cement blocks with thatched roofs and each costs about $250 to build.  This is superior to tents that can become "stifling" in the heat on the island, Haran said.

Observer Tribune

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Posted May 19, 2005