A desperate search for aid as tsunami fatalities double

Sri Lankan emigres pool skills, money

Help From Md.

December 29, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Dr. Sinnarajah Raguraj was visiting friends in New York on Sunday, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, when he began to get frantic cell phone calls from all over the country.

What was happening in Sri Lanka?

Within hours, the Bel Air internist was back in Baltimore, working on a relief mission to his native country. Since then, he has been on the phone constantly, talking to friends and colleagues across the United States and the world, trying to help victims of the devastating tsunamis that killed more than 60,000 in South Asia.

He won't slow down anytime soon. Next week, he and 20 other doctors from around the United States will leave for Sri Lanka for three weeks. His aid group has donated $50,000 to a grass-roots health organization in Sri Lanka.

The doctors hope to take along a cache of medical supplies, including blood pressure machines, antibiotics, syringes, intravenous fluids, anti-diarrheal medicine and vaccines to prevent cholera and other communicable diseases.

Like thousands of South Asian immigrants around the world, he has been doing everything he can to get aid to disaster victims.

"We have to help our own people," said Raguraj, who left Sri Lanka 19 years ago.

Over the past few days, the local Sri Lankan community has done what it can. There are about 100 Sri Lankan families in Maryland, most of whom live in Ellicott City, Columbia and Silver Spring. Tomorrow night, the group will hold a fund-raiser in Bethesda at the home of a local Sri Lankan family.

The country was among the hardest hit by the disaster, which occurred when an underwater earthquake off Sumatra triggered enormous waves that surged ashore from Malaysia to India. Sri Lanka suffered 20,000 deaths, with more than 7,000 others missing and likely dead.

Raguraj, 40, has been getting help from his wife, Arani Raguraj, a genetics researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. During the day, while her husband sees patients, she's on the phone, coordinating contributions from Sri Lankans around the country who want to donate food, money, medicine and clothes.

"I'm just trying to do whatever I can," she says. Arani Raguraj, 36, will accompany her husband to Sri Lanka next week. She's not a doctor and won't be able to provide medical care -- but she is sure there will be plenty to do.

If nothing else, she said, she can simply sit with those who want company. "The survivors will need someone to talk to," she said.

The couple also have a 13-month-old daughter, Iniyaal, who will go along. While the parents work, the infant will stay with her maternal grandparents in the capital city, Colombo.

The Ragarajs grew up on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka, the area that suffered the worst devastation. Dr. Ragaraj is from a village called Aliyavalai, where about 1,000 people were killed. No one in either of their immediate families perished.

His wife's parents were about a mile inland from the wave. "They were extremely lucky, I must say," she said. But both know of friends and distant relatives who are dead or missing.

The Ragurajs have been trying to help their homeland for several years. In 2003, Dr. Raguraj helped start the International Medical Health Organization (IMHO), to help rebuild the Sri Lankan health care system, which was devastated by two decades of ethnic civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese. A tenuous truce has been in effect for the past two years.

The IMHO, which consists largely of Tamils, has focused its efforts in the northeastern part of the country, which is mostly Tamil. "That's the area that has been neglected most," says Raguraj.

He is now president of the group, which comprises 500 doctors nationwide, mostly Sri Lankan. The group has so far raised money to build primary care clinics, and last year Raguraj and several doctors visited Sri Lanka to offer medical care and to supervise construction of three centers. One of the clinics, in Aliyavalai, was washed away by the waves.

Over the past year, the IMHO has raised $50,000 to build several more clinics. The trip next week had been planned for months as part of that effort. But with Sunday's disaster, the plans changed.

Raguraj wired the money to a charity group in Sri Lanka yesterday so it could be put to immediate use. And the 18 doctors, all from Sri Lanka or India, will now focus on disaster relief.

"Now," says Raguraj, "our first priority is not building the buildings."

The group includes a range of specialists, including two psychiatrists. Their expertise will be essential, Raguraj suspects. "Most of the survivors," he said, "will need counseling."

Those who aren't going are also trying to help. Since Sunday morning, Cumberland nephrologist Dr. Arul Ranjithan has collected $20,000 to help victims in Sri Lanka. Ranjithan, who has lived in the United States for 30 years, says he will likely go to Sri Lanka later next month to offer medical help.

"The need is tremendous," he said. "Our heart is there."

Those who want to contribute to the International Medical Health Organization can write to: IMHO, P.O. Box 901, Bel Air 21014, or call 410-638-6729.

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