Volume 74, Number 45 | March 16 - 22, 2005

Photo courtesy Padma Edirisinghe

Above left, Padma Edirisinghe presented a check for $700 to Dr. Gundasa Amarasekera, an executive of the Patriotic National Movement, in Sri Lanka. The money was donated by Village residents and customers of Edirisinghe’s Barrow St. ice cream shop. At right, Edirisinghe after returning to her ice cream store, after her monthlong trip to her homeland to aid in the relief effort.

On Barrow, tsunami relief isn’t flavor of the month

By Jefferson Siegel

The East Asian tsunami disaster has drifted off the front pages and out of the evening news. An emergency relief center on far west Canal St., opened within days of the disaster, has long since closed; the only remnant is a blackboard in the window with the message: “The Tsunami Center has closed. Please do not leave items here!” The American Red Cross, after collecting $1.2 billion worldwide, has stopped soliciting donations.

However, one Greenwich Village businesswoman is keeping the relief effort active in the neighborhood. Last January, Padma Edirisinghe, owner of the Haagen-Dazs ice cream store on Barrow St., told The Villager of her intention to collect contributions from neighborhood residents and customers. She returned to Sri Lanka, her homeland, in February to participate in the recovery effort. Edirisinghe recently returned from the monthlong trip, saddened by the devastation she witnessed but gratified by the help she and so many others were able to provide.

Before recounting the details of her journey, she paused a moment to retrieve a newspaper. Returning with the Jan. 29 edition of the Colombo, Sri Lanka, local paper, “The Island,” she proudly pointed to a photo that showed her presenting a check for $700 to the Patriotic National Movement, representing “donations from the Village community and her customers.”

Arriving in her hometown of Colombo, untouched because of its western location, she spent a day with family before traveling south and east to the disaster areas. “I went to help,” she recalled. “I got a pretty good idea of what was happening from my family and my friends.” Under the auspices of a volunteer relief agency, her primary goal was to distribute books and bags to children whose school buildings and supplies had been washed away.

Traveling with 25 other foreign and local volunteers, Edirisinghe’s first stop was in the southern coastal city of Balapatiya. “We saw the disaster, what happened there, firsthand.” She paused, a moment of sadness crossing her face, “It’s devastating.” Fortunately, food aid had arrived in quantity. Distributing it to the needy, though, proved difficult. “They still didn’t have the correct mechanism to distribute the food,” she noted.

After trips to Ambalangoda and Galle in the south, she then traveled to another hard-hit village, Batticola, in the eastern portion of the country. Staying for three days in a relief camp, she lived in a tent and cooked food for the needy. In this mostly Muslim part of the country, humanitarian necessity was the primary concern. “The good thing about Sri Lanka at this time, they were divided in many ways, but this disaster brought them together,” she observed. Edirisinghe was also impressed with how humane concerns predominated. “Nobody died because of hunger, and the sanitary level in the camps” was very high, she found.

Despite feelings of accomplishment, the numbers still torment her. “Almost 40,000 people, probably more” died in the initial tsunami. Just as haunting, almost 1,200 children lost both parents. The crisis atmosphere and the stress meant people “became more spiritual,” she said, noting she went to a meditation center herself for three days at the end of her trip to decompress.

Leslie Gottlieb, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Greater New York, said that “as of mid-February, $23 million had come in, in contributions from the New York area — from the young students with the bake sales to the cops in the Bronx who gave us $2,300.”

Back in her Barrow St. scoop shop, Edirisinghe still feels a responsibility to the people, and the children, who lost everything. In April she plans to donate one day’s profits to help build a library in Sri Lanka. Her goal is within reach because construction of such a facility costs only $16,000. “All the labor is volunteers,” she noted. “But that is to build, not for the books and things like that.”

Edisisinghe left behind much goodwill and hard work.

“I’m so glad I went there,” she said. “I thank everyone who donated.”

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