[tsu4]Dushmantha Jayawickrema didn’t think it was such a good idea for his wife Udeni to visit family in Sri Lanka over winter break. Despite her demanding schedule and obligations in Michigan, she ignored her husband’s suggestion to stay home. When a friend called Jayawickrema on the morning of December 26 and told him to turn on the news, he wished his wife had listened to him after all.
Watching in horror as a record-breaking tsunami struck his native country, Jayawickrema experienced his own wave of panic and fear. Over the next six hours, he attempted to contact his wife and other relatives to make sure they were alive.
“By that time, I was really starting to worry because I couldn’t get a hold of anyone,” the geology graduate student and Sri Lankan Student Association treasurer said. “It was like a rush to know what was going on. I kept thinking I could be getting news I really didn’t want to hear.”
His wife, vacationing in Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka, was in one of the areas most affected by the tsunami that flooded Southeast Asia the morning after Christmas. According to Jayawickrema, she ran to a house on a higher level of the area moments before the second wave hit and survived.
[tsu1] “I feel like I have seen more as a result of her being there,” Udeni Jayawickrema said. “Rather than being here watching TV and feeling a lot more disconnected, it’s taken me close to the tragedy.”
Although Udeni was fortunate, avoiding a close encounter with the tsunami and returning home safely two weeks later, a death toll that has reached over 220,000 since the tragedy has left MSU international students and faculty continuing to cope with the emotional trauma the tsunami has left in its wake.
“Something like this really hit everyone,” Jayawickrema said. “There was no religious barrier, no cultural barrier; nature doesn’t choose that. I hope people open their eyes and start to see beyond the small things.”
Aside from the devastating economic loss Southeast Asian countries will suffer for years to come, a great many emotional and psychological effects have begun to take their toll. Family members lost, villages swept away and entire cultures left in shock have been difficult for anyone disconnected from the areas to understand. However, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Thai and Indian MSU students in particular have persistently dedicated their time and efforts to helping their native countries throughout the past month.
[news] “I was very touched by the mutual support they offered each other,” Peter Briggs, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, said. “Geographic borders take second place to an entire affected region. Everybody has talked about the tsunami, even other Asians who weren’t affected.”
Briggs said Cholani Weebadde, president of the Sri Lankan Student Association, was the only international student who lost relatives in the tsunami disaster. The genetics and plant breeding graduate student’s cousins were visiting Yala National Park in Sri Lanka at the time. Losing two cousins who were unable to outrun the massive wave and being left to search for one of their children still missing today, Weebadde’s family has continued to endure pain and devastation.
“It’s hard because it was a natural disaster,” Weebadde said. “It’s not like somebody’s sick and you can take medication and fix it. Like one of my professors said, it’s a small country, and 40,000 people died. It’s true that there’s bound to be someone you know who has died.”
In the face of preparing for graduation, heading tsunami relief efforts for the teardrop country and most recently coming down with the flu, Weebadde said she depends on her Buddhist faith to see her through the misfortune.
“In my religion, there’s an attitude that says there’s no point in crying about it, so do something about it,” she said. “After getting through the initial shock and horror, the only thing I can do here is to help the survivors. I can’t do anything about people who are gone.”
[tsu2] Sri Lankan student adviser and interior design resource room supervisor Judy Fogle attempted to bring the devastation home when she imagined it as watching MSU being buried from a distance. “Places you used to go to are gone,” she said. “It would be like graduating from MSU and watching it burn to the ground.”
Fogle, who witnessed the tsunami on the evening news, said she talked to Sri Lankans who told her, “We are fine. We’re more worried about Indonesia.”
While Indonesia suffered most from the impact of the tsunami, with over 166,000 casualties and counting, Indonesian business senior Yuti Resani said she was thankful everyone in her family survived. The vice president and public relations officer of PERMIAS (Perhimpunan Mahasiswa Indonesia di Amerika Serikat, translating to Association of Indonesian Students in the United States) said she hated to think what might have happened.
“Every time I see the news, I want to cry,” she said. “I think about the little babies that were killed, and I think about my little sister. If she was there swimming in the ocean, she would’ve just been taken away.”
Although Resani, who is from Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta, was far from the tsunami that hit Banda Aceh 1,000 miles away, she said fellow MSU students and friends worried about her safety and were surprised to see her return. “A lot of people in my class were like, ‘Oh my God, you’re here, you’re still alive, we’re so glad to see you,’” she said. “They knew I wasn’t from Aceh, but they still thought I was dead.”
[know] While Resani said she realized she must not take her life or the lives of her family members for granted, Thai student association treasurer and operations management graduate student Temyos Pandejpong said he also felt fortunate no one he knew was affected. “It makes me appreciate more of the time and life that I have,” Pandejpong, who goes home once a year to visit his family in Bangkok, said. “It’s probably struck many people the same way. I think everyone should learn to be compassionate and aware of what is going on. This tragedy could teach us that, if you open your heart.”
“It’s not like it’s a one-time disaster,” Resani said. “You can have fun all year long, but hey, this disaster can happen anywhere. Now all I can say is how lucky I am to continue school and not be stuck there.”
Sri Lankan faculty adviser Ronald Harichandran said people in his native country would need psychological assistance to help cope with the trauma the tsunami has caused. “The impact of the tsunami is going to continue for so many years,” Harichandran said. “There is going to be a continuous need for human assistance.”
Harichandran said although he rarely goes back to Sri Lanka, and his wife, who is Indian, is not from the affected area of India, they both felt the impact of the tragedy and described a definite sense of loss. “I have an affinity with the people of Sri Lanka, because I have ties to it,” Harichandran said. “When you have a connection to a place, it does emotionally impact you. You don’t necessarily have to have relatives lost to feel that emotion.”
Journalism senior Aparna Echempati’s mother Pankaja Echempati also felt an extreme sense of loss and even stronger feelings of shock since she was visiting Tamil Nadu in southern India only one week before the tsunami invaded the area where she was shopping. Pankaja Echempati said she couldn’t believe that what she saw in person was now washed away by waves as high as coconut trees.
“Some say Mother Nature was furious,” Echempati said. “One minute people are happily running along the shoreline, and after the tsunami, there was nothing. We were there one week ago; this could have happened to us. What could have been?” Describing dead bodies along the shore mistaken for fish, Echempati said the emotional devastation has still continued. “They can try to calm and unite the people,” Echempati said, “but it’s a feeling you can’t stop. It’s hard, and it takes time.”
[tsu3] Briggs, who was asked by President Lou Anna K. Simon to conduct tsunami relief efforts within a few days after the disaster, described the psychological impact the experience has had on MSU international students who must continue to concentrate on classes with their homes and families overpowering their thoughts.
“We move on, and they don’t,” Briggs said. “They might sit in class and start thinking about a school in Phuket that was swept away. How do they keep going?”
With constant reminders of the tsunami and continuous relief efforts underway, Briggs further described what he calls “tsunami fatigue” in which students have mentioned they were tired of seeing the disaster splashed on the news everywhere they looked and needed a break. “Not everyone’s fixated on it at all times,” Briggs said. “At some point you need downtime. How many times can you see a wave coming in over and over? They live in a shame-based culture. Strengthening their community is the best way to help them.”
Encouraging student support and attempting to channel interested people into something proactive involving relief efforts, OISS and the international student organizations have relentlessly pushed forward in an attempt to raise tsunami awareness on the MSU campus.
“Because we are so far away, sometimes we have a very localized feeling,” Harichandran said. “Whether we like it or not, we are global citizens. Given that the world is such a small place, people can’t afford to be insulated anymore.”
In addition to continuing relief efforts, a tsunami forum was held last Tuesday at the Union. Organized by Asian Studies Center Development Coordinator Michael Malloch, the forum was meant to educate people not only about the most recent tsunami felt across oceans around the world but also about the phenomenon of a tsunami in general.
“People lose their home, their family, they lose it all,” Jane Briggs-Bunting, director of MSU’s School of Journalism, said during a breakout session of the forum that addressed tsunami media coverage. “Then you see the little reunions, and that brings you hope. Those are the stories that change your heart and soul.”
Parks and recreation senior Andrea Ragan, who attended the forum, said she wanted to learn more about social issues surrounding the tsunami. “I want to know what’s going on with the people,” Ragan said. “Not just how many houses went down, but how are they doing?”
Also attending the forum, family and child ecology graduate student Rennta Chrisdiana suggested preparing a trauma resource center on campus for survivors of the tsunami. Coming from Indonesia in 2002 with her husband who was pursuing his PhD in agriculture economics, Chrisdiana was at The Indonesian Muslim Student Association (IMSA) annual conference in Kankakee, IL, when she learned of the tragedy. Chrisdiana said a number of conference participants were from Banda Aceh, and many later found out their relatives were lost to the massive flood of water.
Describing recent paranoia of people running out of their houses when airplanes or heavy rain were heard, Chrisdiana said many people have continued to suffer from trauma even a month after the disaster. “This is the time of hardship as a Moslem,” Chrisdiana said. “We believe that this life is short, and life after this is a better one. So we just have to pass this test and move on.”
PERMIAS president and speech and audiology senior Archie Soelaeman, who was in East Lansing during the tsunami disaster, said she was surprised by the reaction throughout the rest of the world and was inspired to increase her involvement in relief efforts. “I felt overwhelmed at all of the sudden attention on Indonesia,” Soelaeman said. “Most people didn’t even know Indonesia’s location before the disaster. Considering that my country was the hardest hit has made me want to help even more.”
Weebadde agreed and further expressed the gratitude she felt toward others for their support and emotional response to the devastation her country has experienced. “It’s amazing how many people have reached out,” she said. “When I first came to MSU, nobody knew where Sri Lanka was. Now everybody knows, it’s kind of put us in the spotlight.”
While the whirlwind of post-tsunami emotions continued its cycle and all eyes remained on South Asia, Soelaeman said it is still hard for her to watch the news and think of the tragedy. “The emotional toll is enormous,” Soelaeman said. “Things of this magnitude do not happen very often, so it is not easy to understand the different feelings that come with it. The number of victims is over 150,000 people, and that is over three times MSU’s population.
In different ways, we have felt like we lost something,” she said. “The word ‘sad’ doesn’t even start to describe what we feel. Some feel hopeless, but I don’t think we should feel that way. I think it’s also brought hope for a better day.”
Soelaeman said she thinks the tragedy has indirectly affected MSU through its international community and encouraged others to avoid overlooking the tragedy even after time goes and on and media attention dies down.
“I think we are geographically isolated. I’m not sure we feel the pain that others in the world sometimes feel,” Briggs said reinforcing Soelaeman’s concerns. “We’re so extremely lucky in this country to be able to give back when we can. The challenge is to wake everybody else up to it. You can’t control what just happened, but you can control what happens next.”
“I hope that in the future, the world does not need a tragedy to bring everyone together,” Soelaeman said. “I hope that those who were affected by the tsunami can take a step forward in their lives and see what a big impact this has caused to the world. It will be a task to raise the emotional strength level, but I think that in due time, it can be done.”

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