An Orphanage Once Called Home

Orphans from the Samaritan Children's Home pray in its chapel, one of the orphanage's few intact buildings. For now, the children live in two rented houses in a nearby city.
Orphans from the Samaritan Children's Home pray in its chapel, one of the orphanage's few intact buildings. For now, the children live in two rented houses in a nearby city. (By John Lancaster -- The Washington Post)
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 24, 2005

NAVALADY, Sri Lanka -- The big mango tree is gone. So are the roses and the bougainvillea. The ruined dormitories are empty and silent, except for the hiss of blowing sand.

But on a recent Sunday morning, the grounds of the Samaritan Children's Home echoed once more with youthful voices lifted in song and prayer. The orphanage children had come home, however briefly, for services in the battered chapel.

A short visit is the most any of them can hope for.

Seven months after the tsunami that destroyed the orphanage and sent its residents fleeing for their lives in a small fiberglass skiff, the 28 children who survived the ocean's onslaught are, in many ways, doing just fine.

They live for now in two rented houses in the nearby city of Batticaloa. They show no obvious signs of trauma and, thanks to a flood of charity, have no glaring material needs.

But the tsunami has left its mark. The children still pine for the only home that some of them had ever known, with its swaying palms and whitewashed cottages wedged between a lagoon and the sea on Sri Lanka's conflict-ridden east coast.

Meanwhile, the struggles of orphanage director Dayalan Sanders to rebuild the facility in its original location, a quest he has recently abandoned, spotlight some of the bureaucratic and political problems that continue to slow reconstruction in Sri Lanka despite abundant foreign aid and expertise.

It also highlights a controversy over the best way to care for abandoned or orphaned children. As they seek to find homes for the estimated 4,500 Sri Lankan children who lost one or both parents in the Dec. 26, 2004 disaster, some foreign aid groups are pushing the government to rethink its reliance on institutions, such as Sanders' orphanage, in favor of foster care.

"I have apprehensions but I know we can face it and come through it all," said Sanders, 50, a Christian missionary and naturalized U.S. citizen from Sri Lanka whose mother and two sisters live in Gaithersburg. A member of the country's Tamil ethnic minority, Sanders founded a missionary group and moved to Switzerland in the 1980s. He worked there with Tamil refugees from the long-running war between Sri Lankan forces and Tamil rebels fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east. The two sides are observing a shaky cease-fire.

In 1994, Sanders founded the children's home in Navalady, a mostly Hindu fishing village on a narrow sandy peninsula about 150 miles northeast of Colombo, the capital. Steeped in Bible study and prayer, the children grew up in idyllic surroundings, attending a nearby government school and playing on the beach.

"It's a good place," said Dishanthani Kovindasamy, 15, recalling volleyball matches by the sea and games of Snakes and Ladders with her friends. The slender girl came to the orphanage six years ago when her father, a fisherman, died of a fever and her mother could no longer afford to care for her.

Everything changed the morning after Christmas, when Sanders emerged from his bedroom just in time to see the ocean rising and shouted at the children and others, including his wife and three-year-old daughter, to run for the motorboat that tugged at its lines at the lagoon dock.

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