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Born in Sri Lanka, they journey back to help rebuild homeland

By JOE GUY COLLIER, Detroit Free Press, March 20, 2005

DETROIT, Michigan (USA) -- Mangala Jayasuriya tries to keep his composure as he talks about his impending trip to Peraliya, Sri Lanka.

Late last year, all but 20 of the 462 homes in his childhood village were destroyed when the tsunami hit south Asia. More than 300 villagers, including his mother, sister and 10 other relatives, were killed. Another 1,000 people died on a train passing through Peraliya when the waves struck.

"I don't know what to think," Jayasuriya (jaya-SU-ree-ya) said last week, just before flying home to Sri Lanka. "I never expected my mother to die like this. I never expected my sister to go like this."

Three months after the tsunami hit, those with ties to south Asia are trying to overcome personal loss and figure out ways to help people back home. Like many who grew up in the affected area now living in the United States, Jayasuriya feels an obligation to give back.

He has begun a personal mission for Peraliya, a small fishing village in southern Sri Lanka. He has launched a Web site, www.myplight.org, to tell the story of his village and draw attention to the needs there.

In the Buddhist tradition, he's also traveling home to organize a three-month memorial service. During the service, he and fellow villagers will heap blessings on the dead in hopes that their next lives will be better. They'll pray that the dead have gentler deaths in the next life.

"It's unimaginable how they died," says Jayasuriya, a Ford engineer. "Just think about the moment they suffered, drinking in the salt water."

The son of a Sri Lankan merchant, Jayasuriya came to the U.S. in 1986 for college. For the past 10 years, he's worked as an engineer in the auto industry.

He and his wife, Lalani, live in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. They have two children, Harshi, a senior at the University of Michigan, and Amil, a seventh-grader at East Hills Middle School.

In the weeks after the tsunami, Jayasuriya was in a daze. "There are so many kids without parents and so many parents without kids," he says.

On Feb. 1, he took milk, bananas and a rice-flour dish known as string hoppers to a Buddhist temple in Southfield, Mich. When he was growing up in Sri Lanka, his mother always took breakfast to the monks the first day of the month. Jayasuriya says he's not a "temple person," but he'll continue the tradition in honor of his mother.

"I have totally changed my life," Jayasuriya says. "I think everybody's life who has been affected has totally changed from this."

Jayasuriya's not sure how many people he can help back home. On his trip, he plans to take photos of the people in Peraliya and place them on his Web site. He hopes the site attracts sponsors for some of the families. He'd also like to provide scholarships for children in need.

For the rest of his life, Jayasuriya says he'll be working to help the people back home. He owes it to them. "My village is my family," he says. "Some of those people died trying to save other people. If I had been there, I would have tried to do the same thing. I would be dead, too."


Kshama Jayasuriya stood last month on the Sri Lankan coast with six families recovering from the tsunami.

She handed each family an envelope filled with the equivalent of $100.

The money wouldn't solve their problems, but at least, it could buy tools for a carpenter, supplies for a fisherman or a foundation for a home.

"You feel so humbled," says Jayasuriya (jaya-SU-ree-ya), a Northville, Mich., resident and native of Sri Lanka. "These people have lost their homes and everything."

While the major non-profit and government agencies are handling millions of dollars in relief aid, Jayasuriya and others, using personal connections, have undertaken smaller rebuilding projects.

Jayasuriya, a pharmacist, came to the United States 20 years ago to finish college.

She grew up in the hill country of Sri Lanka. She now lives in Northville with her husband, Keerthi, and their two children, Tashya , 17, and Tamara , 10. (She's not related to Mangala Jayasuriya.)

Jayasuriya's hometown wasn't hit by the tsunami, but when she heard about the disaster, she wanted to help. A month after the disaster, she was in Sri Lanka touring coastal areas.

The towns were mostly empty. Children played in open spaces of the refugee camps.

Most of the adults stayed hidden in tents or shelters. They were reluctant to answer questions about the disaster.

"You have to be careful," Jayasuriya says. "Not everyone is willing to talk."

Through the help of refugee camp administrators and relatives who live in Sri Lanka, Jayasuriya found six families in need in Moratuwa, a city on the western coast just south of Colombo.

She gave each of them $100 and is keeping tabs on their progress.

She is also sponsoring an 8-year-old girl who lost her parents. After seeing the disaster first-hand, Jayasuriya says she had to take on a long-term project. She had to do something tangible.

"I wish I was Bill Gates," Jayasuriya says. "I would have rebuilt all of Sri Lanka. ... But you do what you can."


Francis Leo, a Detroit-area businessman, walked through his hometown of Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, a few weeks after the tsunami hit. The houses had been turned to rubble. Most of the survivors were gone, still huddled in refugee camps.

"The worst thing is that I don't see anybody working," Leo says as he plays camcorder footage he took during the journey. "There's no action."

Almost 25 years after he left Sri Lanka for education and work in the United States, Leo is helping the victims of the tsunami. The president and chief executive of Orion, Mich.-based International Industrial Group, he and his wife, Audrey, live in Clinton Township, Mich., and have four children, ages 18 to 27.

Leo avoided going back to Sri Lanka for almost two decades. He grew up in a region affected by civil war. But in 2002, a year after a truce was called, he went home.

Shortly after the tsunami hit, he returned again to work on relief projects with officials at St. Michael's College, a Catholic school he attended.

Three months after the disaster, many of the tourist areas along the southern coast are being cleared for rebuilding, but Leo says he saw little progress in Batticaloa, an area populated by fishermen and tradesmen.

The politics of the civil war have caused problems. The Sri Lanka government and Tamil Tigers, a rebel group that controls much of the area, have been debating who should receive and distribute aid. According to news reports, a proposal for handling the aid was accepted by both sides last week.

Leo says he just wants to help people restart their lives. He's coordinating donations through Utica United Methodist Church, which he and his family attend.

Leo's group is trying to get heavy trucks into the area to clear the rubble. They've already started building tin huts and hope to build more. They also would like to set up a small boat building operation so the fishermen can return to their trade.

"How could you forget your homeland when they're struggling?" Leo asks. "I'm so lucky I got an opportunity to come here and make a good living. It's my turn to help."

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