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Meeting Needs 

For two local women, the tsunami and its aftermath prompted two different ways to offer help.

Dani and Robert Galloway thought they'd have the customary pleasant Christmas at home this year. Well, not so customary. This year, they had a 4-month-old son named Ty to share the holiday. Dani's mother, Dhanya Desoysa, had arrived from her home in Sri Lanka to help with their new infant.

On Christmas night, they called Galloway's aunt in Sri Lanka to wish her a happy birthday. It was about 11:30 p.m. in New Orleans, which made it 11:30 a.m. the next day in Sri Lanka. Her aunt told them that there had been a tidal wave on the southern coast and that there were reports of 160 people killed.

"This was just four hours into it; even in Sri Lanka they didn't know the extent of the damage," says Galloway, who lived in Sri Lanka until she was 13 years old. "Then the next morning, it was 6,500 dead." To date, the death toll in the country has reached more than 30,000. A million people there are homeless.

The Galloways' immediate family and friends were either out of the country or in the capital city of Colombo, which was not affected by the tsunami. The next days were eerily similar to the days following Sept. 11 -- the experience of watching thousands of people die, feeling transfixed and horrified by the images on the television. The word "surreal" surfaced now, as it did then, to describe the dissonance that occurs when a gargantuan tragedy happens in a place far away to your people, and the television brings it into your living room. You feel a real sense of alarm even though you are sitting on your couch, safe at home.

"September 11th was a man-made disaster so you can hold someone responsible," Galloway says. "Now, I wish I could point a finger, but no one is to blame. It's as though God was to blame, but probably not even that would do."

Such helplessness in the face of horror leaves a person in an unnavigable emotional space. Dani Galloway calls it "the fog," which is where she might have hovered indefinitely if the phone hadn't kept ringing. People she had not heard from in years had tracked her down and were calling to ask if she and her family were all right and if they could help in any way. "That's when I came up out of my fog and I realized that all I have to do is to organize this, and it will happen," says Galloway. "We just have to do something!"

She contacted her friend Sonali Sellamuttu, whom she has known since childhood. Sellamuttu, a doctoral candidate, has been doing the field research for her thesis in a Sri Lankan coastal village in the Kalametiya region. Sellamuttu had spent Christmas in Colombo and by chance had slept late on the 26th and so didn't return to Kalametiya as planned, which is how she escaped the tsunami. Sellamuttu did return as soon as possible to help the villagers find and identify the bodies of their family members. She is also helping them to clean out the few remaining buildings so people can take shelter from the tropical storms that are now beating down on Sri Lanka.

When they first spoke by phone, Sellamuttu told Galloway she was too overwrought to discuss anything calmly. When they reconnected by email, the two friends decided to create the Kalametiya Rehabilitation and Development Trust Fund.

"My goal is for New Orleans to adopt this village and focus on rebuilding this one village, instead of scattering our efforts all over," says Galloway.

In Sri Lanka, Sellamuttu's part is to assess and document what the survivors in this village need -- not just immediately but also in the long term. Their goal is to help these people recreate a sustainable livelihood. Because the tsunami occurred during a full moon, the villagers were observing the Buddhist holy day of Poya, and so the fishermen had not taken their boats out to sea as usual. Instead they were sitting on the beach repairing nets when everything was swept away. Consequently, the survivors have also lost the means to earn their living.

In New Orleans, Galloway and her husband have created a Web site -- www.srilankanrelief.com -- where donors can send money through PayPal. They are also soliciting donations of shoes, clothing and bedding. With the help of a physician friend, they hope to collect antibiotics, surgical dressings and over-the-counter medication for pain and gastro-intestinal infection. They will stockpile these supplies in their home until there is enough to fill a 40-foot freight container, which will go to Kalametiya on Jan. 31.

Dani Galloway began this effort by going door-to-door on her own street. Her neighbors gave whatever they could spare from their closets: sneakers, shirts, two children's sleeping bags decorated with images of Pocahontas. Then she sent word around her office at Entergy, where she works as a marketing manager. Every time the phone rings or an email goes out, she asks for help. And the donations are arriving. St. Martin's Episcopal Academy, which holds an annual garage sale for its own fundraiser with 700 families donating, has pledged to give whatever is left over. A woman called from the Northshore to say she had a bag of clothing on her front porch; Galloway dispatched her father-in-law to go get it. Robert Galloway is working through some of his former business associates in the shipping industry to find a company to donate the shipping costs.

"We'll pay for it ourselves, if we have to," says Dani Galloway. "Whatever it costs."

Even as she sorts through bags of donations in her dining room, she acknowledges that the best way to donate to the relief effort is to give cash. One American dollar equals 104 Sri Lankan rupees, and that buys a great deal. Donated money will pay for rebuilding roads and houses and will help the survivors acquire the boats and other supplies they need to resume their livelihood. But Galloway has chosen to direct her relief effort in two directions at once -- collecting both money and material goods -- because the money answers a long-term need, while the clothing and bedding answers the survivors' most acute and primitive needs. "They have absolutely nothing!" she repeats over and over. "Everything they have is gone."

What is the most effective response to this tragedy? The question arises because so many people want to respond. Agencies such as AmeriCares and the American Red Cross have reported unprecedented donations, largely due to the ease afforded by the Internet. However, as noted in a Jan. 3 article in The New York Times, Raymond C. Offenheiser, the president of Oxfam America, described the situation on the ground as "the anarchy of altruism." There are too many helpers and not enough organization, resulting in donated supplies piling up in the airports, stuck in customs. There might be a surplus of doctors at one village, while the next village down the road has no water. The process of bringing relief to Sri Lanka is particularly challenging as that country has been engaged in a civil war since 1983, with a tentative ceasefire in place since 2002.

Information coming out of that fractured country is slow and murky at best. Some reports say that the crisis has prompted the Sinhalese government and the Tamil Tiger rebels to hammer their swords into ploughshares, and they are working together to save what's left of Sri Lanka. Other reports claim that the Tamil Tiger soldiers have routed a government-sponsored refugee camp and demanded that all relief efforts be channeled through their authority. No one knows for sure what is happening. And the uncertainty only seems to fuel the urgency of those watching here in New Orleans.

Rajender Pannu, originally from Malaysia, is chair of the local Asian/Pacific American Society, a 7,000-member organization representing 16 countries. She has established the Tsunami Relief Fund at Hibernia National Bank and reports that, thanks to an email campaign, media coverage and word of mouth, the fund has reached the $200,000 mark. "The donations range from $5,000 to Š wait a moment, I am looking at the balance right now," says Pannu. "Someone has made a donation of 51 cents! And that's wonderful. I don't mind. It all counts for something."

An experienced fund-raiser, Pannu also serves on the board of United Way, and when the Tsunami Relief Fund reaches $500,000, she will release the funds through United Way International, which will distribute the monies through the embassies of the affected countries proportionately according to need. "So it won't all go to Malaysia just because I am from there," says Pannu. "Probably most will go to Indonesia and then Sri Lanka because those have been hardest hit."

Pannu says that she has only just learned of Galloway's Sri Lankan relief effort. She acknowledges that she is mystified that Galloway is collecting clothing. "It doesn't make any sense to me," says Pannu. "She is only collecting for her one little town. It will take months to ship it there. And the relief is there already. They have warehouses full of stuff, but no one to distribute it because the roads are gone, so sending cartons of clothing will be useless. Besides, we can buy everything four times cheaper than here. What they need now is the money to buy the materials. I wonder how will she store it all?"

Galloway has other concerns. She is reluctant to send aid in any form to Sri Lanka through the local official channels. She doesn't trust the government. "I'm afraid it will just disappear into a black hole. We have set up a trust fund, so it is absolutely transparent," says Galloway. "And Sonali is documenting everything, so I can show the people of New Orleans that what they have given is going to the people who need it." She maintains that by sending everything, money and clothing, directly to her friend Sonali Sellamuttu -- whom she has known all her life and trusts completely -- she can avoid the levels of bureaucratic muddle.

"Oh, yes, I have heard about the scam artists over there," Pannu agrees, confident that United Way International will ensure that her funds only go to legitimate agencies. Furthermore, United Way has promised Pannu, "not one tenth of one penny will go to administrative costs. If I have to go there personally myself and put the money in the right hands, I will," she concludes. "I am contemplating doing that."

For Galloway, sending clothing and blankets to Kalametiya makes sense. By focusing on this one relatively small sliver of a massive tragedy, she and her friends can make a visible improvement. They can make the unimaginable manageable. "You can give money to the Red Cross and you know they do good things, but that can be so intangible," says Galloway, as a woman drops off bags of clothing on her front porch. "People have been saying that it makes them feel good to give something that had belonged to them and know it's going to help another person. So this lets them see they can help, and that way maybe they will help again in the future."

Meanwhile, in the Galloways' living room, 4-month-old Ty makes an appearance fresh from his nap. In his pale blue onesie, he is the soul of contentment as he reclines in his father's arms, unaware of what is happening 12 time zones away. His innocence and freedom seem to move his mother all the more deeply over her responsibilities. Galloway admits that things have been chaotic at home since she has taken on the Sri Lankan relief project. Her mother had to point out that they'd run out of milk for Ty. "It's been that insane!" says Galloway. "Then I can't help but think there must be a woman with a 4-month-old child over there, wandering around with no place to go and no place to sleep." Ty has amazed the adults by being impressively cooperative despite the disruption to his routine. Earlier in the day, when Galloway put her son down for his afternoon nap, she had leaned over the crib and said to him, "Thank you, thank you, thank you." For being so good and for being alive.

click to enlarge "I came up out of my fog and I realized that all I have to - do is to organize this, and it will happen," says Dani - Galloway, pictured with her son, Ty, and mother, Dhanya - Desoysa. - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • "I came up out of my fog and I realized that all I have to do is to organize this, and it will happen," says Dani Galloway, pictured with her son, Ty, and mother, Dhanya Desoysa.
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