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Aiding Sri Lanka's Tsunami Victims
By G. Jefferson Price III
Last December's tsunami killed thousands of people and left survivors devastated. This husband and wife, both with Catholic Relief Services, are working to restore hope in Sri Lanka.

Q U I C K S C A N

Rebuilding What Has Crumbled
Easing the Burden
Activism Is the Family Business
Out of Africa
Two Links in a Long Chain

 

Photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services

It’s nice to be here,” says Kevin Hartigan, a slim fellow with cropped, gray hair and an impish twinkle in his eye.

Nice? Kevin is in Sri Lanka after the December 26 tsunami that has killed more than 300,000 people so far, destroyed 88,000 homes and left more than 800,000 Asians in a state of extraordinary shock and despair, with no shelter, no food and no medicine.

Dominique Morel, Kevin’s French wife, who is also in Sri Lanka, puts it this way: “It’s very satisfying. The days are very full—full with satisfaction that comes from helping people who have been so devastated and who are so appreciative.”

Kevin is the South Asia regional director for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Baltimore-based humanitarian aid branch of the U.S. Catholic community. Dominique is CRS’s South Asia emergency coordinator. They have both been in Sri Lanka since a few days after the tsunami struck off the southern tip of India.

Kevin, a 43-year-old native Minnesotan, is happy that he and his wife and many other people from CRS and other relief organizations descended upon Sri Lanka to help its casualties: hundreds of thousands of people who have lost families and friends, homes, livelihoods and hope.

“It’s been a really nice experience in a lot of ways,” Kevin says. “It’s nice to be working in an operation that’s being so strongly supported by Americans and the goodwill of everybody. It’s very heartening and motivating.”

Rebuilding What Has Crumbled

Kevin has been with CRS for more than 14 years. Dominique, whom he married just before joining the organization, has been at his side in humanitarian work from the beginning. She joined the organization full-time in 1994.

Between them, the two have helped to provide relief to flood victims in India and have implemented programs to help people in Afghanistan. Kevin and Dominique have also helped people shattered by horrific events in Africa from famine to AIDS to war.

Dominique’s organizational talents have been put to work, alongside her husband, in such places as Indonesia and Albania during the war in Kosovo. But the aftermath of the tsunami is probably the worst they have ever seen.

“I’ve seen floods and volcanic eruptions,” Kevin says. “I’ve seen man-made disasters like civil wars in Angola and the Congo. But in terms of a single event, I’ve never seen anything like the death and destruction this tsunami caused.”

The task before them in Sri Lanka is daunting for both the immediate and long-term future. While Kevin has worked from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, Dominique has been putting together and implementing relief and rehabilitation projects in Galle, at the southern tip of the island once known as Ceylon.

The first task is to get the basics of life to people who had lost loved ones, the homes in which they lived and the very clothes from their backs.

Money started pouring in even as CRS and its partners, like Caritas Internationalis and Jesuit Refugee Service, were assessing how it should be spent. They were also trying to establish an emergency infrastructure to get the right materials delivered to the right places and to calculate the enormity of need.

One such need was providing shelter—in coordination with other relief agencies—and then, as Kevin describes it, “stuff the government wasn’t providing, like mosquito nets, bed sheets, kitchen sets, soap, sanitary napkins.”

Schools had to be reopened. Providing alternative shelter was important in helping survivors huddled in school buildings to move out so that classes could resume for Sri Lanka’s grief-stricken children.

School supplies—from teaching aids to notebooks and uniforms—had to be obtained. In one act of humanitarian synergy, Jesuit Refugee Service brought in sewing machines for women to sew school uniforms.

“This had an income-producing, as well as a therapeutic, effect for the women,” says Kevin.

And then there’s the shattering trauma generated by the tsunami experience.

“In one place, the market was washed away and a small community lost 2,000 mothers. We’ve talked to people who have lost 25 family members,” Kevin says. “In 45 minutes, this thing created millions of surviving loved ones. It has an enormous psychological impact.”

“In Galle,” Dominique says, “the level of trauma is still very high.”

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Easing the Burden

To help the survivors deal with this trauma, CRS brought to Sri Lanka Dr. Michael Finegan, who works as a trauma counselor for the Maryland State Police Department. Dr. Finegan worked directly with victims and trained others on how to help the survivors psychologically.

Helping Sri Lankans to cope with the long-term impact of the tsunami disaster will be a huge task. “Emotionally, there’s never a full recovery,” Kevin says, “but we can at least be there to help them in their physical needs so they have fewer sources of anxiety, in addition to their trauma.”

Kevin has an interesting philosophical view of the tsunami and how the people whose lives were torn apart by it may find ways to cope.

“This tragedy is horrible, but less bleak than man-made disasters—wars of greed and cruelty and disregard for others,” he says. “That makes it easier to accept. No one in society is really to blame for this, so everyone can pull together.”

War is also a factor in Sri Lanka. For more than 20 years, war has been waged here between the government, which is Sinhalese and mostly Buddhist, and Tamil rebels who are mostly Hindu. It is a war that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

As a result, CRS has been working with local partners on peace and reconciliation initiatives. Because of its long association with Sri Lanka and long-standing relationships with local partners, CRS was better prepared to help after the tsunami.

Activism Is the Family Business

Dominique and Kevin were nowhere near Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. They were on a Christmas visit to his family in Minneapolis.

“I heard the news Sunday morning but couldn’t get a flight that day because of the weather,” he says. “The next day we flew to Colombo via Paris and Dubai.”

Minneapolis is where Kevin grew up, where he went to high school and where he went to college. It took him eight years to graduate from the University of Minnesota—not because he was a bad student, but because whenever he had saved up enough money, he would go off to some struggling country to do humanitarian work.

Kevin did this with the full approval of his mother, Moira Moga, a radical pacifist who spent time in jail after being arrested at demonstrations. He also had the support of his stepfather, Dan Moga, a former Catholic priest who was also a political activist.

“They took me to visit missions in Latin America when I was in high school,” Kevin recalls. “Right out of high school I went to work in a project my stepfather had helped start up in Guatemala.”

This was in the early 1980s when the Reagan administration funded suppression of leftists throughout Central America.

While enrolled at the University of Minnesota, Kevin frequently took off to do humanitarian work in Latin America. He also helped out in a camp for Cambodian refugees in Thailand, worked as a translator in Puerto Rico and as a bartender in Ireland.

Half a world away, as a youngster, Dominique, 40, grew up in France with hopes of working in humanitarian causes. “I also wanted to do this,” she says.

“When I was a teenager, I was attracted to Third- and Fourth-world issues,” she says. “I toyed with the idea of studying journalism and even becoming a nurse with Doctors Without Borders. So it was an easy decision when an opportunity came along to get actively involved.”

Out of Africa

Kevin and Dominique met at Stanford where they were enrolled in the same doctoral program, which neither was enthusiastic about completing.

In 1990, just before they were married, both were recruited by CRS. Since CRS couldn’t send them both to the same place, they decided he would take a posting offered in Haiti and she would work there independently. A year and a half later, they started a long career in Africa, where much of the entire continent struggles for survival.

The couple worked in Chad, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea before moving to war-torn Angola, where Dominique formally joined CRS in 1994. They organized camps for refugees from Angola’s civil war, worked to keep hospitals functioning and helped to feed and educate the shattered victims of the war.

Later they did the same work in then-Zaire, now Congo, as the country was torn apart in the wars that followed the overthrow of Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairian dictator.

Dominique and Kevin also worked to help the hordes of refugees who had filled camps along the Congo-Rwanda border—refugees trying to escape the genocide in Rwanda. Those camps eventually became battlegrounds of their own as bloody rivalries erupted among the inhabitants.

As if Dominique didn’t have enough of God’s creatures to help in Congo, she found others in need in the form of bonobos, which are endangered apes indigenous to Congo.

One day some bonobos rescued from the bush-meat trade were brought to the compound where she and Kevin were living in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, and it was the beginning of an enduring relationship.

“At first, I would only go to cuddle them and play with them,” Dominique recalls. “Then I got to know the lady who created the sanctuary—Claudine André—a Belgian who lived all her life in the Congo. I offered my help with English translations and fund-raising. Then I got caught up in the organization as I had skills they totally lacked.”

Dominique was instrumental in helping André create Web sites in French and in English to attract attention and raise money for the survival of the bonobos. And even though she no longer lives in Africa, she remains involved in the project.

“It’s been fun getting involved in this work because it puts me in contact with a very different group of people than those that I usually meet through CRS—people who are also very dedicated, but with other interests—and getting to learn more about apes and the environment has been fulfilling.”

Two Links in a Long Chain

Kevin has side interests, too. He likes to play tennis and he is an avid bird-watcher, as is Dominique.

“I never go anywhere without my binoculars and my bird book,” he says. “There are some very interesting birds here in Sri Lanka.” What do they talk about when they are calling from separate places? “Sometimes we talk about interesting birds we’ve seen,” he chuckles.

Of course, they talk of more than birds. They agree it is a good thing in their line of work that they are both doing the same sort of thing.

“We are apart a lot and it’s nice that each of us can relate to what the other is doing,” says Kevin. “It would be harder if only one of us were doing this.”

Both Dominique and Kevin are close to their families, and the distance from their parents—hers in France, his in America—is the only big disadvantage they find in their work

But they love the camaraderie and solidarity that develop among people engaged in humanitarian work, with CRS and with other organizations working alongside them. “One of the most rewarding aspects of working with CRS is the teamwork with people who are generally smart, fun, dedicated, nice people,” says Dominique.

“A lot of attention in our recruitment process was given to these basic qualities, which are as important to the success of partnerships and programs as the technical quality of staff,” she adds. “The fact that most colleagues are also among our best friends is a sign of this comradeship.”

For almost a decade and a half, Kevin and Dominique have been working in some of the unhappiest places in the world. A sort of nerve fatigue often sets in with people who live this kind of life for such prolonged periods.

What sustains the spirit and enthusiasm of people who work in devastated and dangerous places? “It appeals to us,” Kevin says. “Not the danger. We don’t relish the danger. But it’s really stimulating and gratifying work.

“Keeping hospitals running in war zones, working to help people who have survived this terrible event provides a feeling of accomplishment,” he says.

Kevin explains: “When these things happen, the whole world sees these conditions on the television screen and wishes they could reach out and put some food in the mouths of the starving. We’re really at the end of a long chain of generosity and we’re the ones who get to hand it over.” 

To donate to Catholic Relief Services, please write to 209 West Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-8443 or phone them at 800-736-3467.


G. Jefferson Price III, a former foreign correspondent and editor at The Baltimore Sun, is a media consultant for Catholic Relief Services.

 


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