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Tsunami Orphans Find a Benefactor in Native Son

Dula Amarasinghe and his family lead an effort to create an Sri Lankan orphanage and arrange adoptions for young victims of the disaster.

January 01, 2006|John Moreno Gonzales | Newsday Staff Writer

As Dula Amarasinghe watched television images of children whose parents were carried away by the sea, thoughts turned to an old tea plantation his family owned in his native Sri Lanka.

Could the abandoned hillside covered by tropical forest give the children a home, and hope?

"I called my brother T.D. in Virginia," Amarasinghe said of a call to Thejasiri Disamodha Amarasinghe, who co-owns the 10 acres. "There was no hesitation. He said 'Let's do it.' "

With that, the Patchogue, N.Y., mortgage banker decided a year ago to build an orphanage on the land.

The United Nations estimates that 185,000 people died Dec. 26, 2004, in the Indian Ocean tsunami -- 35,000 of them in Sri Lanka, and more than 4,000 in Amarasinghe's home district of Galle.

Hacking away the overgrowth and refurbishing buildings was the easy part compared to peeling back the red tape of a Sri Lankan government that Dula Amarasinghe says is increasingly watchful when it comes to child-care institutions. Child exploitation by sex tourists and child conscription into rebel armed forces have troubled the nation for years.

But 365 days of phone calls and official forms later, the Amarasinghes and their benefactors are finalizing plans to move the first 10 children into the orphanage. The goal is to house 100 children.

"We were so determined to go forward with it," said Amarasinghe's wife, Indira, who has filled up eight three-ring notebooks of paperwork related to the effort. "Our own children have been successful here [in the U.S.]. One son is an engineer, one daughter is a lawyer and another daughter is a financial analyst. We wanted other children to have an opportunity."

"The first 10 will be five boys and five girls," said Dula Amarasinghe, who emigrated from Sri Lanka in 1976 with Indira. "And we will take nothing but children who need us the most: those who lost both parents in the tsunami."

Sri Lanka has 967 registered children who lost both parents to the disaster, and 3,954 children who lost one parent, according to the U.N. Dula Amarasinghe says the numbers mean that maintaining the orphanage will be a lifelong effort, and one that probably will involve heart-wrenching decisions.

The Amarasinghe orphanage does not have enough beds to meet the need, so some children will have to be referred to other institutions, which are already bursting at the seams. To find the children a permanent home and help clear up space, the Amarasinghe family is also trying to organize an adoption program that could bring the children to American shores.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the procedure to adopt a child from Sri Lanka is a complex, 10-point matter. Among other things, it requires U.S. and Sri Lankan immigration applications, the hiring of a Sri Lankan attorney to represent the prospective parents, and at least a monthlong stay in Sri Lanka to be on call for court hearings.

But those who helped the couple get the orphanage started in a modest white house with a red tile roof are also in it for the long haul.

Winkie Schultz, operator of the Curves fitness franchise in Patchogue, where Indira is a member, raised $40,000 for the orphanage.

Schultz says a handful of members at the women's gym have already inquired about adopting a child from the orphanage, and many others have asked about sponsoring a child financially.

"Everybody wants to help. And this gives them a way," Schultz said.

U.S. Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-New York) helped the Amarasinghe family quickly secure tax-exempt status for the Sri Lanka Orphanage Fund, a nonprofit that has raised more than $100,000 so far. He says he will continue his support.

"The scope of the tragedy was so enormous, and my office wanted to be as helpful as possible to good people who were stepping forward," Bishop said.

Dula Amarasinghe hopes to construct nine more buildings on the site and estimates it will cost $120,000 a year to operate the orphanage at the projected capacity of 100 children. He said he'll draw upon a love of his homeland and a legacy of philanthropy to stay the course. His father, Abraham, an educator, once donated a building to the local government to be used as a school.

"One day, some kids will come to here [to the U.S.] to go to college," he said. "That is my wish."

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