April 4, 2005: Headlines: COS - Sri Lanka: Tsunami: Married Couples: The Denver Post: Asanga came to Colorado in 1996 to see Anna Jones, 40, the woman he had met three years earlier in Sri Lanka when she was in the Peace Corps and boarded the wrong train, the woman who would become his wife, Anna Jones

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sri Lanka: Peace Corps Sri Lanka: The Peace Corps in Sri Lanka: April 4, 2005: Headlines: COS - Sri Lanka: Tsunami: Married Couples: The Denver Post: Asanga came to Colorado in 1996 to see Anna Jones, 40, the woman he had met three years earlier in Sri Lanka when she was in the Peace Corps and boarded the wrong train, the woman who would become his wife, Anna Jones

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Asanga came to Colorado in 1996 to see Anna Jones, 40, the woman he had met three years earlier in Sri Lanka when she was in the Peace Corps and boarded the wrong train, the woman who would become his wife, Anna Jones

Asanga came to Colorado in 1996 to see Anna Jones, 40, the woman he had met three years earlier in Sri Lanka when she was in the Peace Corps and boarded the wrong train, the woman who would become his wife, Anna Jones

Asanga came to Colorado in 1996 to see Anna Jones, 40, the woman he had met three years earlier in Sri Lanka when she was in the Peace Corps and boarded the wrong train, the woman who would become his wife, Anna Jones

A bittersweet return to Sri Lanka

By Kelly Pate Dwyer
The Denver Post
April 4, 2005

Sunday morning, warmer than usual for March, and 4-year-old Calum Abeywickrema gripped a garden hose, soaking the front lawn of his Congress Park home and anyone who came near it.

It was a typical weekend. Anna Jones, his mom, had just returned from a run. His brother Max watched TV. And his dad, Asanga, vacuumed before helping a neighbor with a home fix-it project.

But springtime will look much different.

Asanga left last month, and his wife and children followed him Saturday to Sri Lanka - a nation ravaged by civil war, hunger and disease - to build homes in villages destroyed by the Dec. 26 tsunami. The disaster killed 31,000 people and left 1 million homeless there.

The four-week trip is partly a relief mission. They've raised $30,000 through a local grassroots campaign.

And it's a bittersweet homecoming for Asanga.

Like a New Yorker returning to Manhattan after 9/11, Asanga, who is Singhalese, had mixed feelings about going home.

"I've seen dead bodies all the time in different kinds of wars," he said earlier this month. Sri Lanka's civil war has claimed more than 60,000 lives over 20 years.

Still, he said he's nervous about the visit because he had never encountered such devastation.

Asanga, 41, grew up in Sri Lanka, an island the size of Kentucky with 19.5 million people. He came to Colorado in 1996 to see Anna Jones, 40, the woman he had met three years earlier in Sri Lanka when she was in the Peace Corps and boarded the wrong train, the woman who would become his wife.

Asanga visits Sri Lanka once a year. This time he'll introduce his 6- and 4-year-old sons to a web of aunts, uncles and cousins. And he'll witness hardship greater than what he saw as a child.

His relatives are mostly in the inland town of Kandy, unaffected by the tsunami. But Asanga lost six friends in the south when 20- and 30-foot waves rocked the coast.

From the moment the phone rang at 3 a.m. on Dec. 26, Asanga wanted to go back. At the time, flights were full with relief workers.

For a week, he and Anna walked around in a daze. "Asanga barely spoke," she said.

They grappled with how to help. They decided they could do something immediately by raising money.

Their fundraising started with an e-mail campaign, which quickly took on a life of its own, bringing in checks from family, friends and strangers. Asanga cooked 11 varieties of curry for a $250-per-plate dinner hosted by a couple with a spacious downtown loft.

Friends in three bands played a benefit concert at the Mercury Cafe. And a class at Calum's preschool raised $103 selling handmade paper roses filled with chocolates.

As tsunami relief goes, $30,000 isn't much.

"It's a spit in the ocean, really," Anna said. "But the thing is, for us, this is a lifetime commitment. We want to be able to get to know these families so we can follow them and make a compelling story to

donors next year."

More important, $30,000 is enough to build six homes in Sri Lanka.

A Buddhist approach

Anna and Asanga will divide their money equally among the country's largest and often clashing ethnic groups - Moors, mostly Muslim; Singhalese, mostly Buddhists; and Tamils, mostly Hindus. Since the tsunami, tensions have flared in the quest for food and other relief supplies, Asanga said.

The couple channels donations through Sarvodaya, a 50- year-old grassroots peace and community-building group based in Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. Anna said they chose Sarvodaya because it spends 100 percent of the money raised for tsunami relief on recovery.

Sarvodaya aims to rebuild 226 villages and communities surrounding them within three to five years, focusing on 12 areas, including housing, health, psychological healing and economic revitalization.

Founded on Buddhist principles, Sarvodaya's approach teaches communities self-reliance, said Suzanne Bader, executive director of Madison, Wis.-based Sarvodaya USA.

After visiting Asanga's relatives, the Denver family will meet with Sarvodaya's Rick Brooks, Bader's predecessor, who left for Sri Lanka in March. He's sorting out how Sarvodaya USA can match villages in need with the thousands of U.S. donors who have asked that their money go to a specific village, and that they receive records of how each dollar is spent.

"Until you've been to Sri Lanka, until you've been in the midst of a crisis likes this, I think its difficult to grasp what that kind of request means," Bader said.

For now, Sarvodaya USA discourages Americans from traveling to Sri Lanka, concerned they'll end up more frustrated than fulfilled by their efforts.

Bader said relief and reconstruction are hampered by the scope of the disaster: the communication infrastructure is poor, land records have been destroyed, and the government says people cannot rebuild within 100 meters of the sea, where the nation's poorest lived before the disaster.

However, Bader expected Anna and Asanga to be better off than most because they know the language and culture.

Continued violence makes recovery efforts difficult and dangerous, relief workers said. A 2002 cease-fire officially ended a 20-year civil war in Sri Lanka, but fighting and terrorism continue.

"It is a complex situation and overloaded by many years of war," said Abdus Sabur, secretary-general of Asian Muslim Action Network and Asian Resource Foundation, which promote peace and community development.

The groups' local partner, Community Trust Fund, is helping rebuild in many regions, including Trincomalee on the east coast, one of several regions Asanga, Anna and the kids plan to go.

In spite of the dangers, Sabur said recovery efforts are succeeding.

Lost train, found love

Asanga's family will start in Kandy to see his relatives, then tour three regions to scout places to build homes.

Anna said she will capture images of the people, villages and hopefully of the homes they intend to build - tangibles of progress she can e-mail to friends and donors.

The boys, who spent afternoons riding bikes up and down their Denver block, and kicking a soccer ball through neighbors yards, have watched news images of tsunami damage.

Anna and Asanga were hesitant to further prepare them

or discuss the "what-ifs" of the trip.

"From a parenting-philosophical point of view, I don't want to build up something that may not exist," Anna said.

"If we go to an area that's scary, we will leave," she said, noting she and Asanga are more worried about disease.

Asked what he expected to see in Sri Lanka, Max said: "An elephant."

And he wanted to go shopping.

Calum said he'll hold a crab.

Max, topping that, said he'll hold a snake.

What do they think about building houses for families there?

"I haven't even built my own house yet," Calum said.

But Sri Lanka is their father's home and the place where their parents met.

Anna, who grew up in Denver, a half mile from where they live now, made Sri Lanka home from 1992 to 1994, when she taught English with the Peace Corps. She worked at a now destroyed sea turtle hatchery.

Her first week there, Anna hopped the wrong train and panicked. An English-speaking passenger waved to a man at the next stop and asked him to help - as Anna told it - "the stupid white girl" get to Kandy.

That man was Asanga.

He owned a guesthouse in the area and a sightseeing company. He was on his way home from visiting friends.

"I was all nervous," Anna said, playfully recalling their first encounter as Asanga sits beside her, quiet and smiling.

"He looked at me and said, 'Would you like an orange Fanta?' He was wearing wingtips and Levis. I was like, this guy is so cute."

Yes, she wanted the soda pop. With that, Asanga sprinted a half-block to buy one, Anna said.

Now Asanga looks a bit embarrassed.

"He made it just in time for the train," Anna said.

She returned to Colorado when her service was up, and a year later Asanga obtained a fiancé visa so he could visit her.

To stay, he needed to marry within 90 days.

As the deadline approached, Anna remembered, "I said, 'So do you want to get married?"'

"Why not?" Asanga replied.

Asanga misses Sri Lanka and would rather live there, but he said he's happy in Denver. He owns a moving company and exports products - mostly old computers and paint, mis-tints he gets from Guiry's - that cost more in Sri Lanka.

"Home improvement is popular there," he said.

Asanga runs his businesses from a used-furniture shop, The Red Door, which he recently opened at 3105 E. Colfax Ave., a few blocks from the family's home.

And the name?

"It already had a red door," he said.

"They built a community"

Anna works as a consultant for downtown revitalization projects. Theirs is a regular sort of life for a working family.

But they're anything but regular people, said Jen Garner, who lives three houses up the street.

Anna is the reason everyone on this block socializes together, said Garner, who lives a few houses away.

Asanga is that guy who always will lend a hand - like when he helped a neighbor chop down a tree crushed under the weight of snow, or on this March afternoon, a week before he leaves, when he'll help his neighbor transform his attic into a loft.

``They've one by one reached out to every neighbor,'' Garner said. ``They built a community here first.''

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Story Source: The Denver Post

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Sri Lanka; Tsunami; Married Couples



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