washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Maryland
Page 2 of 4  < Back     Next >

Snags Hamper Mission of Mercy

Washington area residents, and others from across the United States, responded overwhelmingly to his appeals, mostly through television news appearances. They donated money through his Web site and dropped off clothes, canned goods, Band-Aids, ibuprofen, toothpaste, cereal, diapers and toys at the Mowlanas' home.

Their driveway, garage and family room filled with donations. One man brought an armful of clothes he'd purchased at Nordstrom -- Ralph Lauren T-shirts, a suit, trousers. Others brought cases of canned goods and bottled water and stuffed animals. A neighbor lent them his garage to store the overflow.

Mowlana hands 3,000 rupees (about $30) to an injured vendor who cannot support her family. God bless, she replied. (Jacqueline L. Salmon -- The Washington Post)

An owner of a medical equipment company in Modesto, Calif., donated $1 million in medical supplies -- surgical equipment, an EKG machine, medications -- and said he would ship it to Sri Lanka at his cost.

Dozens of volunteers showed up to pack up the usable items for shipment, filling hundreds of boxes and loading them onto wooden pallets for air freight and into trucks that would fill two 40-foot shipping containers. They signed their names on the boxes and scrawled messages for stricken Sri Lankan tsunami refugees -- "I love you!" and "Hang in there!"

Mowlana, director of the Maryland and Virginia offices of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was jubilant. With all this aid, and more to come, Asia Relief could care for orphans, construct a hospital, rebuild villages. He said he and his family would load supplies into a jeep in Sri Lanka and deliver it to the refugee camps.

He flew off to Sri Lanka to distribute the aid Jan. 14, taking along his wife and two of their three children -- 22-year-old Farha and 12-year-old Tasnim -- as well as Farha's 1-year-old daughter, Sakina.

The next day, reality set in for the visitors: Giving away their donations from America wasn't going to be easy.

Just getting to the disaster zone was complicated. They had difficulty finding a reasonably priced rental Jeep and driver to take them there; other aid organizations had snapped them all up. Their Sri Lankan cell phone wasn't working. And the pallet of supplies -- bandages, gauze, antiseptic, rice and lentils -- they had shipped via air freight was still stuck at Sri Lanka's only international airport, Colombo Bandaranaike Airport.

Officials wanted 300,000 rupees in bribes -- about $3,000 -- to release it. A police inspector had shown up at Mowlana's hotel room to negotiate the deal. He had even hinted that a gift of the Canon Sure Shot camera that he'd spied in the hotel room would speed the process.

Mowlana had dodged the camera request but paid the bribe. Nonetheless, he still didn't know when he would receive the goods.

In a rented car searching for a working ATM machine in downtown Colombo later that day, Mowlana tapped the back of the car seat lightly in frustration. He wasn't an impatient man, but this was frustrating. The tsunami had made Sri Lankan's notoriously corrupt bureaucracy even more greedy, he said.

"It's unfortunate that people prey on other people's tragedies," he said. He was worried about money, too. So far, he had spent less than $3,000 of Asia Relief's money. He'd been covering most expenses -- including the bribe -- out of a $60,000 home equity loan that he and Naz had signed before leaving.

"If I'm going to dive into the money that people have given me, I want to do the right thing," he said. But the reality was that he couldn't afford to cover much more. He'd already also spent thousands of dollars of his own money to ship the supplies.

Two days later, the Mowlana family members, wearing their white Asia Relief T-shirts, were on the road to visit the disaster zone. Naz had finally located a rental car and a driver. They had hoped to bring supplies with them to give to victims, but the pallet still had not been released from the airport.

< Back  1 2 3 4    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company