The phone rang at 6 a.m. Sunday, and Diyana Sanders shot up in bed at her two-story Gaithersburg home. The news on the other end made her shudder: A colossal tsunami had hit her native Sri Lanka, where her brother runs an orphanage. Roaring floods had killed thousands on the island.
The caller, a brother-in-law who lives in London, said nobody could locate Sanders's brother, Dayalan Sanders, who had 28 children in his care on the country's ravaged eastern coast.
"It is frustrating to be here," said Diyana Sanders, whose brother lost his orphanage in Sri Lanka.
(Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
"Because of where the orphanage is situated on the water, we didn't think they could have made it," said Diyana Sanders, 40, a guidance counselor at Fields Road Elementary School in Gaithersburg.
An hour later, her brother-in-law phoned back. Dayalan Sanders and his wife, Kohila, had survived with all the children in a near-impossible escape. As the storm approached, they all leaped onto a boat, holding on and praying as the boat was repeatedly hurtled 20 feet into the air, then slammed back down to sea level. They watched as their orphanage was swallowed by water.
"We are so thankful they are alive," said Diyana Sanders, who moved to the United States in 1985. "It was a complete miracle."
Dayalan Sanders, 50, took his family and the children to a neighboring community, where they now sleep on the floor and plot their next move. About 75 percent of the families in Navalady, the village surrounding the orphanage, did not survive, Dayalan Sanders told his sister.
She and their mother, Kamalan Sanders, 77, have been telling the story over and over since Sunday, partially because they are elated that he is alive, and partially in hopes of raising some of the $400,000 needed to rebuild the orphanage, which operates on donations.
"It is frustrating to be here, but I am thankful I am in a safe area," Diyana Sanders said. "I can do more to help by being here and trying to raise funds than I can being there in the middle of it." She is holding an open house fundraiser next week with finger food and pictures of her brother's orphanage, in hopes of collecting donations.
She said she wants to help rebuild the orphanage to help the children, and also bring back her brother's labor of love.
Diyana Sanders said she tries to remember her homeland as a "paradise," rather than as the images that flash across her television screen of a ruined country littered with broken homes and decaying corpses.
She and her brother left Sri Lanka in the 1980s because of a civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese that was tearing apart the lush island. By 1989, the family had settled in Gaithersburg.
Dayalan Sanders had become a U.S. citizen and was working as a salesman at a tire store in 1995 when he felt the pull of his native Sri Lanka.
No one in the family was surprised when he decided to move home to open the orphanage. "That is so him to do something like that," his sister said. "From the time we were little, he brought stray animals into the house."
His mother said her son always was drawn to people less fortunate than himself. "He was always like that. Even as a little boy, he would collect money in a little purse and give it to a beggar."
Still his family worried about his return to Sri Lanka. "We were concerned because of the political situation. We feared for his life," his sister said. "We encouraged him to have the orphanage in a safer place, but his heart was set."
He found a narrow sliver of land, bordered on one side by the Indian Ocean and on the other by a lagoon, and scraped together the money to buy it.
When he opened the orphanage, he convinced the government to bring electricity to the small town, his sister said. After that, when he brought in doctors and dentists for the children, members of the community would line up for free services. Eventually, the doctors' visits became free clinics open to villagers and dwellers in nearby cities.
When the orphanage held church services, people from neighboring towns would attend.
"My brother is not just helping his little village," Diyana Sanders said. "The whole area looks up to him. The loss of the orphanage is a loss for the entire community."
Diyana Sanders set up a donation fund at Chevy Chase Bank. She will hold an open house fundraiser from 3 to 6 p.m. Jan. 8 at her Gaithersburg home. For information, call 301-279-2947.