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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)

The boat roared away just as the tsunami overwhelmed the orphanage, swamping some buildings to the rooftops. Crying and praying, the children huddled on the floor of the small boat as it rode the ocean surge into the lagoon, nearly capsizing at one point. But eventually they made it to land, and everyone survived.

The story of the harrowing escape unleashed a flood of donations, including contributions from elementary schools around the United States and a $70,000 pledge from Ford Motor Co. For the first month after the tsunami, the children slept on the floor of a small church in Batticaloa. They have since moved into the rented houses -- one for boys, one for girls -- on a quiet lane in the city near the lagoon, and have enrolled at a nearby school. For the most part, they appear to have put the tsunami behind them, displaying a resilience that Sanders attributes to their faith.

"We have given them sheets of paper," he said. "None of them even drew the tsunami. They've been drawing birds and flowers."

Sanders said he had hoped to rebuild the orphanage on its original site, perhaps constructing a levee to protect the facility in the event of another tsunami. But his efforts have been stymied by confusion over the government's plans for the peninsula.

Ostensibly for safety reasons, the government has barred reconstruction within 200 yards of the sea along much of the east coast. The rule, if enforced, would prevent most rebuilding on the peninsula. Work has begun on restoring roads and electricity in Navalady, and the country's urban development authority has proposed turning the area into an eco-tourist hotel.

To make things even more complicated, local officials said the future of the area cannot be settled until they come up with a way to involve the Tamil rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in planning its recovery. The rebels and the government recently signed an agreement on sharing international tsunami aid but have not yet worked out the mechanisms for doing so.

In the face of such uncertainty, Sanders has dropped his plans to rebuild the original facility and is negotiating for the purchase of a 25-acre coconut plantation on the inland side of the lagoon. If all goes well, he will break ground next month on a new facility with beds for 100 children and a vocational training center; he plans to fill some of those beds, he said, with children who lost parents in the tsunami.

But that goal has placed him on a collision course with, among others, UNICEF, which is working with the government to find alternatives to institutional care and to ensure that orphaned or abandoned children in refugee camps are registered with the proper authorities.

"They are living in a dream world," said Sanders, who argues that UNICEF's preference for placing such children with relatives or foster parents is unrealistic given the fragile state of families struggling to cope with poverty and the aftermath of war.

Geoffrey Keele, a UNICEF spokesman in Colombo, acknowledged a role for orphanages but asserted that children are usually better off if cared for in a family setting in their home villages. He said the organization has been working with Sri Lanka's child-protection agency to develop procedures for regulating foster care.

Sanders said his missionary group will retain ownership of the old orphanage and perhaps use it as a campground and retreat. For now, however, only the chapel remains in use. Cleared of sand and debris, the open-sided structure looks much as it did before the tsunami, down to the tinsel Christmas garlands that somehow survived the ocean surge and now stir gently in the breeze.

Last Sunday, the children returned to the orphanage in the same boat that saved them last December. As they sat cross-legged on the floor, Sanders led them in Tamil-language folk songs and prayer, then read a passage from Psalm 116, "Thanksgiving for Deliverance from Death."

Strolling the grounds after the service, the orphanage founder looked toward the beach and at the glittering expanse of blue that lay beyond. "That's the sea," he said with an ironic half-smile. "It looks so innocent."

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