February 15, 2005: Headlines: COS - Sri Lanka: COS - Ivory Coast: Tsunami: Service: Gay Issues: The Advocate: Ivory Coast RPCV Kelly Darnell at work on Tsunami Relief in Sri Lanka

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Ivory Coast RPCV Kelly Darnell at work on Tsunami Relief in Sri Lanka

Ivory Coast RPCV  Kelly Darnell at work on Tsunami Relief in Sri Lanka

Ivory Coast RPCV Kelly Darnell at work on Tsunami Relief in Sri Lanka

Here in Sri Lanka

Feb 15, 2005

Veteran relief worker Kelly Darnell talks about working amid the unimaginable devastation left by the December 26 tsunami and how staying connected to her partner is one important lifeline BY PATRICK LETELLIER

International relief worker Kelly Darnell, an out lesbian from Santa Barbara, Calif., traveled to Sri Lanka two weeks after a catastrophic tsunami destroyed a third of the country's coastline on December 26, killing over 30,000 people in that nation alone. Darnell, 36, is the Asia and Middle East program officer for Direct Relief International, an aid agency providing lifesaving medical supplies to hospitals and clinics worldwide.

Darnell spent eight days visiting the country's hardest-hit regions. The Advocate spoke to her while she was there.

Why are you in Sri Lanka?

We're meeting with our partners here-Sri Lankan-run organizations and the Ministry of Health-to learn more about what they need and tell them what we can provide.

Tell us about what you've seen.

Driving from Colombo to Galle, we stopped a lot and walked. Somehow I wasn't prepared for what we saw. Everything is decimated, torn to rubble on both sides of the road. You drive for hours and that's all you see. Some people are there, but most are gone, passed away. It's not just by the water that is wrecked, it's far inland. You can walk into what was a forest and see destroyed homes; baby clothes up in trees 15 feet high. There's a mass grave where 150 people are buried. People wearing masks because of the smell. It's surreal. People walking around shocked and in tears. I've never seen anything like it.

How does seeing all this devastation make you feel?

I tend to get anxious more than I get sad, so I've had a lot of anxiety. Last night I couldn't sleep, couldn't shut my mind off. I kept thinking about it all. I called my partner, Anne, and called my family-that helped.

Can you tell us about a specific place you visited.

At a refugee camp inside a Buddhist temple in Galle there were about 45 families. Most of them don't seem to have known each other before this happened. A woman who is traveling with us brought some bubbles, and the kids were having a great time with that. The mothers are trying to cook and make meals, so they've got something to do, but the fathers and the rest of the men just look so stunned. The men were at a loss. The refugees go to the camps at night for shelter and food, but during the day they go back toward the beach and sit in plastic chairs on top of the rubble that was their house.
They just don't want to leave their land. Driving for miles, and hours, you see them, all these people in plastic chairs sitting on rubble. It's indescribable.

Does your being a lesbian come up on a trip like this?

In my own life, I'm completely out to everyone. But often when I travel into other cultures, I'm not out. Anne often travels with me, and we downplay our relationship. We're often meeting with tribal cultures in Laos or meeting chiefs in Africa, and it's something they don't really understand. The way I look at it, I happen to be a lesbian and this happens to be my work.

What's it like, as a woman, going to a place like Sri Lanka where male dominance is more explicit?

In the city I'm fine wearing whatever. In rural areas I wear long skirts and cover my shoulders. It's about being respectful of the local culture. I'm always doing that when I travel, trying to find out what's appropriate and what's not. I was in the Peace Corps and lived in Africa, so I'm pretty familiar with how to make those adjustments.

How have been treated since you arrived?

The Sri Lankan people are very, very friendly. I've been meeting people from all over the world and I'm getting the "Are you married?" questions. Those normal, polite, family sort of questions people ask when you're getting to know them. Those are things I have to dance around a little.

Do you ever just come out?

No [laughs]. In cultures where it's really not accepted and not talked about, I just don't go there. In Sri Lanka [being gay is] illegal for men, but there's not even a mention of it with women. I'm still young enough for people to think, Oh, you're not married? OK, that's normal. I'm 36, but I get read as being younger.

How do you feel about leaving SH Lanka?

Part of me wants to stay, to roll up my sleeves every day and help. And part of me is ready to go home. I want to come back a year from now and see people living in homes again. You can still see how beautiful it is here, and I can see why so many people come here. It's gorgeous. This morning I got up, the sun is coming up, the call to prayer is happening. It's another day. life is going on.

Relief worker Kelly Darnell blows bubbles with some children whose homes were destroyed by the tsunami in Sri Lanka.

Letellier is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

Copyright Liberation Publications Feb 15, 2005

When this story was posted in February 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Chris Dodd proposes Class Action Fairness Act 10 Feb
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Bush's budget to end Perkins loan forgiveness for PCVs 8 Feb
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Mike Tidwell defends wind farms 6 Feb
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Story Source: The Advocate

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Sri Lanka; COS - Ivory Coast; Tsunami; Service; Gay Issues



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