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Tsunami relief work by Fulbrighters in Sri Lanka

Tod Bruning , an American Fulbright scholar with a background in IT networking projects, has been directly involved in developing a tsunami relief volunteer registration system to be set up at a help-desk at the airport. The system will get volunteers entering the country onto a skills database that will match their skills with those that might be required by NGOs. The initiative has been tentatively dubbed "VolunteerSriLanka.org".

Tod says, "In addition to the aid flowing in, there are a considerable number of people who are coming here to volunteer, and many of these people are specialists in disaster management or related fields. It has become clear that we have to come up with some way to match skills these people bring with them to NGOs that could really use them out in the devastated regions of the island. The airport seemed the most logical place to catch and register these people, but we are also setting up a website for registry as well."

Tod is only one of the many American Fulbright Scholars in Sri Lanka who has been personally involved in the relief and rehabilitation work since the disaster struck on the 26 th of December. Using their professional networks to locate relief organisations, many scholars have been working round-the-clock, donating time and energy to contribute to the massive relief and reconstruction effort that is facing the country. As one scholar told the Fulbright Commission, Fulbrighters have unique skills and flexi time so they are in an ideal position to help in the relief work.

Dr Yvonne Everett , a Professor of Natural Resource Planning from Humboldt State University in California , has been working with the Centre for Environment, Department of Geography and others at the University of Peradeniya to coordinate the university’s GIS based mapping capability. She will also help and initiate a list serve/website for data sharing with government departments, universities, local and international NGOs working to gather spatial and other emergency response data in the aftermath of the disaster.  Once the locations of displaced persons’ camps and the numbers of people and types of relief needed are in spatial data bases (mapped),
the relief will become easier to coordinate.  Then there will be the damage assessments – infrastructure like roads and buildings, water supplies, salinity, environmental impacts etc., to be done as the country rebuilds. University students will be active in this work. Yvonne is also working with NSRC, a local NGO coordinating  relief and restoration efforts in seven villages on the South and East coasts.

Rebecca Ennen, Jeremy Gantz and Malka Older have been working with Sarvodaya, the Rotary Club of Colombo – Regency and Sewa Lanka, sharing their web development skills or generously donating time and energy by working hands on in the field. Many other scholars have been lobbying for funds abroad or making donations.

"I was part of a very small web team at Sarvodaya in charge of maintaining and developing their blog at http://blogforsrilanka.com/ ." Says Jeremy. He adds, "I don’t think web work is what many people think of when they imagine relief work, but the many thousands of dollars which we received through internet donations after people visited the site are a testament to the importance of web presence during crises like this. Two days ago (Thursday, 6/Jan/’05) I began assisting Rotary Club of Colombo Regency with their relief effort.  I am essentially their web and email administrative hub, in charge of cataloguing the hundreds of emails and donations they have received and continue to receive. In addition, I am maintaining their relief effort blog at http://www.reliefforsrilanka.blogspot.com/ ."

Malka Older , whose academic background is economics, has been working in Trincomalee and Galle, two of the worst hit regions, writing proposals, coordinating efforts and meeting with donors .

Samir Shah is an architect who has been researching, " Vernacular Architecture – how regional Sri Lankan modernism has responded effectively to the local climate and adapted traditional building methods to the realities of contemporary social conditions". He will be actively involved in assisting an American NGO called Architecture for Humanity in their reconstruction work. Samir says, "In the past week, as I emailed and called around to offer my architectural skills as a volunteer, I got a newsletter from an organization back home in New York (Hoboken, NJ actually). A group called Architecture for Humanity was putting together a tsunami reconstruction fund. They were also calling for architects and designers in the devastated areas to contact them. AFH wants to help fund an experienced Sri Lankan relief organization, working with a team of Sri Lankan architects, to build a village within what is, in effect, the Sri Lankan vernacular building tradition."

Given the research that Samir has done so far and the contacts he has with some of the architects best suited for AFH’s goal, he hopes to help bring local architects the funding they need through AFH, and help take part in the practical application of all that he has learned so far on his Fulbright Grant.

The Fulbright Programme aims to promote mutual cultural understanding between the USA and Sri Lanka through academic exchanges. To date, since its inception in Sri Lankan in 1952, over 800 U.S. and S.L. scholars have received scholarships to study in each others’ countries.

The willingness of the American scholars to work on the field at their own expense or lobby for funds abroad shows a willingness to be involved personally in the catastrophe of their host country with generosity and sensitivity. The words of Samir Shah captures a cultural sensitivity that does not proclaim to understand what the Sri Lankans are experiencing, but is yet willing to empathise and be sensitive to it:

"It has been just over one week since the events of 26 December, 2004 here in Sri Lanka. In that time, I have gone through much mental anguish for my friends here, the safety of their family members, and for my own personal safety. I have only been in Sri Lanka for three months, have no family here, lost no friends, and yet I feel such unutterable loss. My imagination is not boundless enough to understand the grief of the Sri Lankan people themselves who have lost villages, homes, friends, family."
To contribute to or, to be part of the relief work done by the Fulbright scholars, please contact the Fulbright Commission:

email: [email protected]