Alumna finds hope amid destruction
By Gabrielle Williams
Amongst the destruction and aftermath of the December tsunami, Chanda Kroll '95 said she saw hope and the goodness of humanity. This spirit has kept her connected to Sri Lanka where she was vacationing and where according to the BBC the tsunami killed more than 30,000 people in the small island country.
Kroll traveled to Sri Lanka in the middle of December to spend nearly three weeks visiting and touring with friends she had met while living and working in Korea. What she found were serene beaches, genuinely friendly people, and amazing cultural sites.
On Dec. 23, Kroll and two friends hired a driver in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo to navigate through the country's small inland roads. They began winding their way across the island to the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka: the World Heritage Sites of Dambulla (cave temples), Sigiriya (a palace on top of a large rock in the sky), Polonnaruwa (archaeological sites), and Kandy (the former royal capital). In Polonnaruwa, their immediate plans and the remainder of their vacation changed dramatically when the tsunami hit the coasts of Sri Lanka the morning of Dec. 26.
"We were packing up and getting ready to head to Kandy after a morning safari," said Kroll, "when my friend got a call on his cell phone. I think we found out about the wave about 20 minutes after it happened." Kroll and her two friends had not felt the earthquake or seen the wave, being too far inland, but the event and its impact has made a dramatic impression on her.
After the phone call, the group spent the remainder of the day trying to catch news reports with the help of the driver who spoke English and Sinhala, Sri Lanka's official language. "Our driver would translate what he heard. The numbers of deaths kept escalating and the enormity of the situation started to dawn on us."
The group decided to leave Kandy and meet up with friends in Colombo on Dec. 27. Sri Lanka's largest city had survived for the most part and Kroll said in Colombo and all along the way she was astonished to see how quickly people came together to do whatever they could to help. "It was amazing. People were setting up help stations, and asking people to donate blankets, food, money, and other necessities. We saw people going from house to house asking for money and then going to the local store to buy bottled water, blankets, and food to give to the victims. Local companies were organizing large supplies of necessities to be sent all over the island to the affected areas."
Seventeen kilometers (10.56 miles) south of Colombo, Kroll said they saw an "old shanty town." The houses, which had been made of wood and lined the beach, were completely wiped out. "When I stood in the debris, I kept imagining the surge of the water. It was heartbreaking to see the people rummaging to salvage anything they could use."
This prompted Kroll to begin looking for what she could do to help and how she could spend the remainder of her vacation. "It was really difficult to find an organization that would let us volunteer," without speaking the language or having medical training, she said. "We were willing to do anything to use our two hands, but at that point it was too soon. The idea of cleaning up wasn't being organized yet."
After a day contacting services and organizations, she was connected with a medical team. Working at refugee camps in churches and Buddhist temples, Kroll and a friend spent two days helping the team with odds and ends and talking to people to see what they needed. In addition to the need for medical supplies, it was mentioned that children were expected to start school again in January, but they had no pencils or paper. "My friends and I pitched in money and bought a local store out of their pencils and paper," Kroll added.
However, what Kroll said was needed most was financial support. While still in Colombo, she contacted friends and family in the United States to gather funds. "I took the money I accrued and bought things at pharmacies and then took them to the Red Cross. That's how I spent the rest of my time there."
When Jan. 4 came and she was scheduled to board the plane back to Oregon, Kroll said the airlines were working and the flight went as planned, but it wasn't easy to return home. "It was hard to leave. You want to help as much as you can and it's hard to leave a place that really needs help." With a population of nearly 20 million people and just slightly larger than West Virginia in size, Kroll added that no matter where on the island the Sri Lankans lived or she and her friends visited, everyone was touched by
Today, sharing the stories of what she saw and the people she talked with, Kroll still finds it difficult to relay the memories of the tsunami. "It's hard to talk about it. No matter what I say I feel like I'm not expressing the feelings or explaining the situation adequately and you often end up speaking for so many people. … What I can explain is what I've seen, but that's small compared to what so many people saw."
Months later, Kroll said she is still touched by what she witnessed. "Sometimes we are so wrapped up in what we're doing or need to do that we forget how much we can affect someone's life with a smile or an ear or two hands or money. You can really make a difference in people's lives and they can in yours if you let them in."