Sri Lanka Report

My dear sisters,

We are sending you greetings from Colombo, Sri Lanka. By God’s grace we arrived here on Saturday the 22nd of January. We thank you for your prayers and support to make this trip possible.

Have you ever had ice cream and immediately after hot coffee? That is about how we felt when we came out of the Emirates airlines flight from Athens to Colombo, Sri Lanka on Saturday morning. Most of Greece including Athens was enjoying snow in the mountains, slit in the city and low temperatures. Normal for winter in Greece. But how about Sri Lanka? No, warm rather hot�.90�s in January. No wonder so many people chose this extremely beautiful island for their holiday when cold weather overtakes their countries. However this is not the reason we have chosen to come. Our hearts were touched by the pain and destruction that have overtaken the people of this country and after asking God we decided to come and try to join His work and plan for Sri Lanka. To touch as many people as we can with God’s love and hope for tomorrow.

Trying to pack for such a trip can get you some confused because it is difficult to pack summer clothes when you wear heavy sweat pants and heavier socks. As I was pulling out of our closet clothes I reminded my self not to take but the necessary clothing and in addition none of my favorite t-shirts. I know this is selfish, but I thought what if something happens and we have to leave everything behind and run. Then the connection was made…maybe this is how we should feel about �carrying with us� in this life too many favorite things we cannot take in case of a �sudden� departure but on the contrary attach ourselves and keep in our �heart suitcases� things that we could take with us..

Soon after the �wave� flooded and washed away the South � South East � South West of Sri Lanka, Healing Hands International was looking for Christian �contacts� in the area that evil happened. We brought up Sheila Romine�s name. Sheila used to live in Athens and worshipped with the Omonia family. When she was relocated with her American embassy assignment to Colombo she met up with the church here and for the last several months the church meets at her house. Well this is how we were connected to Colombo, let Healing Hands know and finally got here. Friday evening we left Athens and traveled through the night.

Saturday we arrived at the Colombo International and Sheila was waiting for us at a busy and hot! Airport. It is not easy to comprehend the ways God works so many times. The levels, the folds that are included in circumstances that sometimes we do not take seriously, ignore or simply do not consider. How Sheila lived in Athens, how she moved here and with all that has happened she is here to receive us. She has been telling us for the last year how much she wanted for Alex and me to come and visit the Christians. There are several small congregations here in Colombo and they all meet in different areas. She told us over and over how much we could encourage, counsel and uplift the few Christians here who are surrounded from all areas by the Buddhist regime and meet for the most part at her home for the last year.

Sunday morning, we find ourselves in Colombo and simply observe Church history being repeated. Very much like a first century church meeting from house to house. By 9 am Sri Lankan Christians started arriving at the house. The living room of the colonial, yet American decorated house, was filled with the warmest and most excited Christians. Five children and 10 adults. Their children sat with us while Alex brought a lesson on the fact that Jesus is all we need. To describe our joy of being with them is difficult. Our hearts were full. More difficult would be to describe their joy of having with them Greek Christians who came to help and serve their fellow people who are suffering, as well as uplift and encourage the Church. If these moments are not previews of Heaven, what would be?

There is so much to write that I will be perhaps tire you so I will try to keep this as short as possible for you my sisters not so much to get a picture of the �wave� destruction, we all have seen it on and on TV, but to get a picture of how God is working in all the circumstances for the good of those who love Him. At the same time, I just want to share a few every day occurrences that put a smile on our face and I hope it will the same to you. The truth is that at some point you become immuned to the desperate people�s faces, the mothers that are looking for their children, the cars that are hanging on the coconut trees, the single walls that stand with a once window, now hole overlooking the Indian Ocean. However if this reality hits you in person, your hearts starts aching really hard.

Monday was our first day to travel to the South part of Sri Lanka. If you happen to have a map you will see that Colombo, the capital, is the place where we are staying. The areas that were heavily affected by the �wave� are South west and South East Sri Lanka. Our first stop was at �Ambalagonda�. It is only 40 miles South but you need 3 � 4 hours to drive down there. Cows, pedestrians, tricycles, cars, buses, vans, bicycles, merchants with vegetables, smoke make up the busy highways of Sri Lanka. In Greece we have straigh dogs here they have straight cows. There are no high ways. You have to drive through every small village and town in order to get anywhere. There is no heavy traffic time. There is traffic all day long. As we drove north I did not notice time because there was so much to see. The country is lined with coconut trees and all kinds of tropical wild plants.

We finally got to the first camp only to see lot�s of desperate faces waiting for someone to tell them that they are not alone and that there is hope. Isn�t that this is the very thing every heart yearns to know? Oh to give them some food, heal their wounded feet and give them antibiotics for the all kinds of infections they have is necessary as well. However their hearts need to be comforted. Just about every family in the camp, 56 families, has lost a relative. Total souls in this camp, 170-200. The day we were there a Pilipino medical and counseling team was there as well. We worked with them all day long. Did whatever was needed. Helped the doctors, talked and counseled the people, visited two more camps to see the needs and present circumstances.

The temperature is about 95 degrees unless it rains and it gets steamier and hotter. If you have seen the forest gumb movie, you will remember what he said about the Vietnamese rain. It did not just rain, it rained from all directions. I can testify to this. When it rains here umbrellas are not necessary. It rains from every possible direction so you might as well go about your business�..wet. When you first get out and try to work you feel the extreme heat, but after a while you get so involved that you do not really notice. I looked at Alex at one point and his clothes were as I had just washed them, very wet, I asked him �are you hot? He said…no, why?

The two main social groups that were affected here, as always, were the lowest and low middle class. The two main income sources for the above groups, fishing and tourism disappeared at least for a while. Most of the hotels, pensions that belonged to middle class people were washed away completely. Small shops for tourists and locals disappeared as they never existed. Broken debris, scattered timber, garbage, plastic bags have replaced the once �paradise like tourist resorts�. Fishing boats, small or larger, are cut in half like broken cucumbers and lined up on the main �highway� that runs by the Sea. All of the above with a generous portion of grief despair and fear for tomorrow. The first day of school after the �wave� was yesterday. Someone played a terrible joke and simply said, the �wave� is coming back. They started running and climbing on the coconut trees again.

In the camp God has placed us there are not major medical problems. It is a camp established by the Indian army and guarded by the Sri Lanka navy. We have made friends with the officer who is there day and night and he never looses an opportunity to smile and come greet us. He is very sweet and a fan of the last Olympics. Those Olympics will go a long way!!

We are convinced that God is giving us abundant grace to everyone�s eyes as not everybody enjoys this kind of treatment. Especially Christian relief workers. The major problems in most camps as this is dermatological feet problems, since they all walk bare feet, stomach, stress related problems, ordinary viruses that affect little ones. There is food every day for everyone in the camp. There is not variety, but never was anyway. Here they just pretty much eat the same thing everyday, every meal. Rice and curry something. They even a have a dish that is simply is large pieces of tomato in curry sauce. The do not like too much meat, and if it is chicken and beef. Most of them if not every one is Buddhist by birth.

The camp has an outdoor covered area that serves as a kitchen. They have a couple gas cookers but they prefer to cook on fire wood. There are more flies in the area than lentils. Every child and old person continiously is asking me for toffee, candy. See they get food but not enough sweets. Isn�t that many people reach for ice cream or anything sweet when they are upset? No exception here. We are planning to go shopping Thursday and buy candy and make seventy packages. One for every child and old person. You have noticed that aged people crave candy as little ones do. No exception here.

You wonder what is needed here. Well there are two levels of needs. Short term needs and long term needs. The short term needs are endless. They need tools to empty the debris and garbage from their houses. They need plastic buckets, water containers, gas cookers, thermos, cooking pots, inflatable mattresses, bed sheets, towels, underwear, soap, shampoo, combs, toys, baby wipes, baby diapers, mosquito bed nets�.

Long term needs, housing projects, schools, small clinics. It is not as everything was ok before the �wave� hit these areas. Pretty much chaos existed before as well. The only difference is that they all knew how to survive and coop with the past chaos, now they are confused and unable to figure out what to do. Only natural. In extreme circumstances as this, people usually need reassurance of the fact that all this will pass and they will smile and face tomorrow. See the picture they all describe over and over again is the �wave� jumping out of the sea on them and them trying to hold on to each other, climbing on the coconut trees or simply try to outrun the speed of the �wave�. Impossible.

We returned that first night very late back to Colombo with our new friends and brethren, Willie and Dipthi. Willie is one of the two ministers of the church here. The other minister is Samon and his wife Dani. This second couple has an extremely bright and beautiful young daughter name Hishara. She has been our translator and does an outstanding job. Without her little would be accomplished. See when you do not understand what the other person is trying to tell you�.you simply do not understand. Of course besides Hishara, her parents as well as Willie and is wife have been excellent translators. In fact the Pilipino mission team did not have anyone to translate for the doctors and counselors and both couples made their selves available. So here is one more unexpected fold of God’s plan. These couples only drove with us down there to work together with us and show us the needs. The already had been several times down there since the �wave�. However this time they were utilized in another major way by translating for the Pilipino team.

Tuesday early in the morning we went to the ministry of Health to get our registration health certificate. See the government here wants to know who is present, what country you represent and in case of an emergency to know who is in the country. While talking with the health rep we were invited to the minister of the Health ministry office for a Sri Lanka media interview. The Pilipino team was there as well and we all sang the �light the fire� song as well as asked the minister if he would allow us to pray with him. The Pilipino leader offered a prayer for all trying to help to be directed and strengthened by God. He also said that we were all there with a �wave� of love and compassion for all those who suffer.

We left the ministry of health and went to buy medicine and few school supplies. Trying to buy the medicine in a �1800�s pharmacy� we could not but really be impress by the precise and very professional way the pharmacist dialed with our order of medicine. He was extremely kind and patient. He asked us how long it would take us to transport the tetanus shots we were buying to the camp. He went ahead and put ice cubes in a small bag. Forge dry ice or anything you know so far, simply ice cubes. Nevertheless we have gathered so far that people here take very seriously their jobs and do their best to please you. Whoever speaks English sounds like a British lord and uses proper language for every occasion. So we did travel back to the camp that day, delivered the medicine and did what was needed. Then we met the Pilipino team and drove back to Colombo.

Wednesday we left the house very early in order to make sure we miss some of the traffic. Mistake. People here do not believe in sleeping longer than 5 am. The streets by 7 am were busier than I have seen them so long. We arrived at the camp and Alex took blood pressures all day long. I think he blood pressured the whole Sri Lanka country! Counseling, talking, encouraging was my task for the day. In early afternoon I took all the pictures from the digital camera downloaded them on Alex�s lap top, put the lap top on a high table and invited the kids to come see their picture. Difficult to tell you how out of control they were. See mirrors here are rear. Most kids do not even know what they look like. To see those pictures, hugging with their friends, doing funny faces, posing as in old Indian portraits�put lots of smiles and laughter on their faces. They were so tickled and kept asking for more pictures, until we had not more battery in both the lap top and camera.

Another three hour drive back to Colombo that night and we cannot find the bed fast enough to go crawl in it so we can get rest for the next day. In the mean time our �angel� sister and friend Sheila takes care of every possible need and wish we have. Although she has to work at the Embassy daily she makes sure every evening to prepare sandwiches for our next day, buy us fresh milk, exchange money, encourage us when we do not understand the culture, tell us how delighted she is that we are here to help and on and on. In a few words she is thinking about everything even before we think it and has it either ready or an answer for it . Sheila is an excellent administrator, encourager and compassionate person that you could meet. We thank God for her and only to know that her 70+ dad lives and teaches English with his wife at some unknown place in China only tells you what kind of Christ like hearts this family has.

The plan for Thursday is to purchase a list of household and personal goods as well as candy to deliver to �Ambalangoda� people. It is a two fold plan. For one the local church here has arranged for us to meet at a home that was not affected and there will be gathered 25 families. I will cook for them Greek � Sri Lankan curry chicken, we will all eat and then we will deliver to them the gift of God’s and your love. Afterwards we are planning to visit our usual camp and deliver the candy bags to the children and the aged. More tomorrow, we beg you to ask everyone to continue to pray for God to shield everyone who is sent here by God’s love and compassion, for Alex and me, to direct us and completely cover us with His Grace.

We send you our best greetings and love,

In His loving and compassionate Hand

Eleni


January 31, 2005

My dear sisters,

We are spending the second week of our stay in Sri Lanka. God has blessed us in many unexpected ways. Our fellowship with the Christians, an opportunity to touch people with His love and grace. We will be here for one more week and plan to try to meet some of the needs that have come to our attention as we have daily visited the camps and also homes of local people that have been directly affected by the catastrophe.

As I told you in my previous message Thursday was the day to go out and buy provisions.

Here they have really large, multi floor stores that you can buy just about everything you need. Food, household goods, clothing, linens etc. So we loaded together with Deepthi about eight supermarket buggies with plastic buckets, plates, cups, cooking pots, plastic containers, underwear, food and went straight home to start cooking for the next day�s expedition.

Early Friday we chartered an eight passenger van, loaded everything and off we were to our three hour trip to the South part of Sri Lanka. We arrived and were welcomed to a home of a rice farmer that his home was not been affected by the �wave�. However his rice field was completely �burned� by the sea water. Upon our arrival to the traditional Sri Lankan farm house, 25 families, or whoever was left from each family, were waiting for us outside the home. A movie director would be �envy� of this scene. They were all standing, holding their children, waiting to give us rather to receive from us. Very calm scene. These families are middle class Sri Lankan that had small business and shops that were lost in a few hours on December 26th. As we got out of the van I was again overwhelmed by the picture and at the same time felt very inadequate to the occasion that was unfolding in front of my eyes.

The night before I had cooked Sri Lankan – Greek chicken curry that we carried with us. Sheila came over after her work and we all together finished the �project�. We were welcomed to the �outdoors� kitchen and started warming up the food. It was all done over a wood fire and I got the best recipe of red lentils with fresh curry leaves and fresh coconut milk that we extracted from the coconuts right that second. I will send that later for those of you interested in that most delicious way to eat red lentils.

The hostess and the host of this home welcomed us into their dining room, got their best plates out, no cutlery, every one here eats with their fingers. The line was formed quietly but quite fast. I could not wait for the first person to bite into the chicken I had cooked. Since they eat the same thing everyday, I was nervous to see how they would react to the Greek version of the chicken curry. They complimented the dinner with the biggest smiles of relief and joy. Believe me I had deposited all the love I had available in my heart that night when I was preparing it. I believe it reached its destination, their hearts!

Soon after another quite line was formed for us to deliver the goods we had brought. One red plastic bucket full of kitchen goods and a laundry plastic basin as well full of clothing and shoes. In moments like these, I realize this is all I want to do for the rest of my life. There is no work or service that could give me more joy. The connection was made, the mission was accomplished, the hearts were open and their eyes starting flooding with tears. With tears we wanted to explain where this help was coming from. We were all crying, but someone had to shallow the tears and speak. The young 26 yrs old niece of the rice farmer who could be an executive administrator in any big company, she surprised us with her organizational and communication skills, thanked everyone who made this help possible and for the Colombo church and Alex and I for delivering it. We talked to them and told them that all this help and more to come is from God who touched many people�s hearts with love and compassion for their present trial. I told them that our goal was simply to remind them that God loves them and He personally cares for each and everyone of them. That He will see to their needs and also comfort them. By now everyone is crying and as we hugged them good bye for that day, we are going back again, you could feel their skinny bodies shake in crying.

To see this native Sri Lanka family, the host, his wife, their niece and their son, opening their house in order to accommodate and offer relief to their neighbors and relatives with such generosity and hospitality truly disarmed us. See our God works in so many levels and folds that can only leave us surprised time after time. The host lady here is a retired teacher. She speaks no English but her 22 year old son, translated for me. I asked her if I could come back and share with her my faith and also would like to hear about her faith. She told me with a thousand gestures and smiles to return and stay with her. My next suggestion was since none speaks English but very few of them if she would allow a volunteer to go and spend a few months with them and start an �English school�. She was delighted to hear the plan and told me that she would love that. You know what English school I am talking about, right the one that lies in the pages of the Bible. They would accept it and it would be the greatest seed of God’s love in their hearts. So, here is a call�who will go?

As we talked with everyone we found out of two great needs. Of course we found out of the immediate needs as bed nets, bed sheets, school shoes, underwear, coconut scrapers, thermos, flash lights, and mattresses for the pregnant women, school bags, canned foods. One of the great needs I feel very strongly to share with you is a grandmother whose son, daughter in law and two of their three young children were washed away for ever by the �wave�. However their 6 month old baby boy was found two days later abandoned. Now the old grandmother together with her 26 year old junior daughter, the only one she has left, are trying to raise the baby. She needs our help and we decided to give her a hand over the next years to bring up the orphan.

The second situation is a young man, 25 years old, that was in the Sri Lankan army and was caught up in a fight with the rebels of this country, the Tamil tigers, and a bullet was stuck in his back. He is paralyzed. The bullet is in the fifth vertebra and according to the doctors here he needs to have surgery in Singapore to remove it. Hopefully he will be able to walk again they say. They cannot operate him here. Right after he was wounded he returned home and his fianc� kept her promise and so they married. She carries him around in a small tri wheeler, the official transportation in this country, in the lack of course of a wheel chair or any kind of a luxurious commodity of this kind. I am sure that there were always many needs as there are with all of us around the world on a daily basis, however in an emergency as this long term needs that already existed but nobody was here to listen or help. I am sure that this is just another occasion that is put before us to offer our help.

Oh I forgot to tell you that besides the rice farm, the host family of this relief outreach also owns a cinnamon tree plantation. To tell you the truth I had no clear idea of how we get cinnamon in our supermarket jars. The cinnamon trees are small, about 6 feet trees, with a quite slim trunk. This is what the peel off, dry it and we get the cinnamon sticks. The other food revelation is t find out when pineapples come from. Please do not laugh but in Greece being in the Mediterranean basin, we only see pineapples in the super market or in the books. I truly thought pineapples grow on some tree�no they grow, you probably already know, like lettuce, one by one routed in the ground.

We left this refuge that God had chosen to abundantly pour His love to the aching hearts of these families feeling overwhelmed yet our hearts were full of God’s grace and love, the gratitude and gratefulness of our new Sri Lankan new friends.

Since I mentioned the �official transportation vehicle� earlier let me tell you that the roads of Sri Lanka are �flooded� with these small tri wheelers covered with a nice brown hood. Most people, tourists included use them daily to go from one spot to the other. Each of them can only take two passengers and they are famous for turning over very easy if one of the passengers is heavier than the other.

I feel extremely privileged and blessed that God allowed us to come here and offer what we can. When we saw the first reports of the �wave� that flooded the �once tourist paradise� of Sri Lanka, my heart was touched in a way to say. How can I help? We all have different ways of helping to meet the needs of this country and its people. I believe that when we make ourselves available to God’s plan He never fails to include us in what He is doing. Many experiences I have had in my life, traveling with Alex on the ship, visiting Christians in other parts of the world. This one is like no other. This is no ordinary trip or experience. The only way I can explain this is that when pain and strife is abundant His grace is more abundant. His grace is so visible this time. Maybe this is what is so different!

On Saturday was the day to prepare a dinner for Sunday to share with the church. Part of the day we went to the grocery store and bought groceries. Sheila also took us to a spice grinding mill. You have not seen huge sacks of cinnamon, curry, cardamom, coriander, turmeric and so much more. This mill is downtown Colombo on one of the busiest streets. This street which is also a high way, not size wise but it leads you to the South, is called Gale road. We had a delightful lunch with Sheila and her good friend from the High commission ( that is what they call the Embassies here) of Canada.

We are staying at the home of Sheila�s co worker at the Embassy. The lady�s name is Sue and she had to fly on emergency to the United States to be with her aged mother. We are extremely thankful for her generosity to let us stay in her home, since Sheila�s home was under roof construction this last week. Sue also hosted a couple a few weeks before we got here an American baby with their infant who are teachers in some other area. They were on holiday at the South part of Sri Lanka and caught up in the waves. The water flooded their hotel room and they had to swim out…of the hotel and walk barefeet, to out run the �wave�.

As you understand here everyone here does what is possible and more to help those in need.

Sunday we met with the church at one of the brother�s home. Sheila picked us up and we drove into country where they live. Worship started at 10 am and finished with Bible study included at 4:30 pm. We have been very blessed by the fellowship of our brothers and sisters here. They are hungry for God’s word. They do not loose an opportunity to start studying and raise all kinds of questions on God’s word. Their singing is delightful and although sometimes I can understand what is said in other languages, at least the ones spoken at the Omonia church family, here I have no absolute clue of what is said. They are very expressive when they speak and pretty much confirm what is said by moving their head in a circular way. Sheila can do it, I have not got there yet. It is a very graceful mannerism.

For now we send our best greetings and ask for your prayers for direction and strength while we are trying to help and offer all we can,

In His loving Hand, Eleni