"The only skill that I took with me," says Nimo Tirimanne, "was that I was able to listen."
Tirimanne, 42, of Morningside, returned to his native Sri Lanka 23 years after emigrating here. He discovered that not all of his skills would help the country recover from December's tsunami. Once thing Sri Lankans could use, he found, was some free time.
Tirimanne helps refugees and immigrants connect with jobs, counseling, legal help and other essentials as a resource volunteer coordinator for Jewish Family and Children's Service in Squirrel Hill. But when he traveled to the tsunami-ravaged east coast of Sri Lanka for 18 days in mid-February, he found residents in need of rebuilding what he calls "the invisible but more important structures" of family.
Armed with everything from stuffed animals to medical supplies, Tirimanne traveled six hours up and down the east coast of Sri Lanka, in an area where 17,000 people died, 3,000-4,000 are still missing and presumed dead and another 400,000 people were displaced from destroyed or uninhabitable homes. (An earthquake aftershock on March 28 reportedly sent residents fleeing throughout the region, but happily there was no tsunami.) He visited more than 20 refugee camps, each housing hundreds or thousands of people. The pictures he took tell much of the story: a crushed van serving as a memorial site. The foundations of houses swept clean of everything else. A Hindu temple alone in an empty landscape. The gateposts of Portuguese and Dutch settlements that had been preparing for their 500th anniversary, all in a line, with no houses in sight. A cemetery washed away. The burial place of Tirimanne's parents was similarly destroyed.
"So much of the ritual of life has just gone away," he says. And life in the camps, under the hot plasticized canvas tents, is horrid. "A lot of drinking," he says. "No, it's terrible, particularly among the men. There's a lot of gambling. There's a kind of black-market economy going. It's what you get when people are bored and depressed."
Tirimanne gave out supplies, talked to people and listened. But he wanted to create something that could last beyond his visit.
"Many of these people weren't ready to deal with housing," he observed, especially since the government had placed a moratorium on building too near the beaches, leaving residents competing for space with the fishing industry and tourist areas.
What Sri Lankan adults needed, he observed, was free time. Parents freed from children could do the paperwork endemic to life in the camps, seek job training or jobs themselves. They could do the work of the camps too: cooking, washing and cleaning. Or, Tirimanne adds, they could take time "just to grieve."
He helped begin six cooperative day-care centers in five camps, run primarily by widowed women with children. "The concept of day-care centers is a bit alien to much of Sri Lanka," he says. "It was a matter of selling the idea. We gave them the seed. The way it worked was up to them." And the cost, he says, was negligible. Keeping them supplied "is really effective, and it's bloody cheap."
Tirimanne will talk to anyone about ways to help residents prosper again in his native country (firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-422-7200). He understands why people do not want to leave such a devastated place.
"The contrast between the beauty of this environment and the significance of the destruction -- you question why something this beautiful could have caused such havoc, but you understand why these people want to come back."