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Tsunami aid fails to help victims

By Will Bigham and Conning Chu, Pasadena Star-News Correspondents, Feb 15, 2005

Pasadena, Calif. (USA) -- When the Venerable Bhante Chao Chu of Rosemead Buddhist Temple visited Sri Lanka to help the victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami, he saw what can happen when well-intentioned charity-givers allow their compassion to overpower their wisdom.

<< Some donated materials for Sri Lanka's tsunami victims were useless, such as sequin-studded black evening dresses, high-heeled shoes, winter coats and packs of Viagra.

Chu saw Sri Lankans confused by donated foreign items like lotion and bath gel, frustrated by used kitchen utensils, pots and pans, and struggling to open canned food.

"The victims don't even have can openers," Chu said. "How can they open the cans?"

Seven weeks after the disaster, no one knows what to do with some supplies piled up at government buildings, aid agencies and refugee camps.

Local charity organizations, including Chu's temple, have been smart with their giving, most only sending financial support or other vital supplies, like medicine and essential hygiene supplies.

Chu said that at first, the temple sent over toys and clothes along with medical and financial assistance, but have since stopped sending clothes.

"It's a burden for them to have (excess clothing) around," he said.

Some of the stranger items contributed, which Chu calls "useless and a waste," include thong underwear, sequin-studded black evening dresses, high-heeled shoes, winter coats and packs of Viagra.

Officials at Salvation Army Southern California, the American Red Cross and the Los Angeles Archdiocese said the organizations are only sending financial aid to the region.

"We send money to the places where the relief workers know the needs of the people that they are serving," said Tod Tamberg, Los Angeles Archdiocese spokesman.

After the tsunami, employees at Encino-based Life Alert gathered an estimated 100 boxes of charitable aid, said Dawn Russo, office administrator.

Unfortunately, the boxes included blankets and winter jackets (useless in tropical Sri Lanka and Indonesia), along with toys.

Life Alert decided not to send the material overseas, and instead gave the donations to Los Angeles Mission, which distributed the shipment to local homeless people.

Nawala Lakkana, a monk at the Los Angeles Buddhist Vihara, said that their efforts were equally difficult at times. Among the donated items the group could not send were high-heeled shoes and raincoats.

Of the bizarre supplies that do arrive in Sri Lanka, most of it is from individual donors, small overseas charities or private companies.

Although Sri Lankans laud donors for their good intentions, it appeared some suppliers didn't think before sending a shipment.

"People have a good heart to help, but they don't know where to help," Chu said.

But many Sri Lankans are still homeless and in dire need of aid. Banners along the devastated coast read "Help the displaced" and "We need your help," with an arrow pointing to a nearby refugee camp.

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