It takes a village to raise a disaster's orphans

In a small village in South India, nearly 7,000 people were killed by the 2004 tsunami. The children who were left orphaned are all now back at school.
The fish market today in Nagapattinam, South India, where nearly 7,000 people were killed in the 2004 tsunami. An early warning system has allowed local fishermen and consumers to venture back to the sea. (Siva Swaminathan/CBC)

In the past few months, there have been several natural disasters around the world. One can't help but wonder how people are coping.

For my part, what these tragedies do is bring back the memory of the Boxing Day tsunami that claimed the lives of close to a quarter million people five years ago in Southeast Asia.

At that time, waves as high as a five-storey building killed nearly 7,000 people alone in my birth place, Nagapattinam, a coastal town in South India.

Sometimes called Nagai, Nagapattinam was among the most affected areas in South India and I went there shortly after the tsunami to do aid work with the money raised from generous Toronto neighbours.

The children, mostly girls, at the Nagai orphanage in South India. Tsunami victims, they are the beneficiaries of a fund set aside for their education. (Siva Swaminathan/CBC)

After working in the IT field for 12 years, Siva Swaminathan pursued her long-time dream of becoming a chef. She trained in Toronto and then apprenticed in Germany for two years. Siva is also a freelance writer who has returned to her home in India to help where she can.

Once a fishing hamlet with a thriving export business, Nagapattinam was severely damaged by the sea and its fishing industry was wiped out.

The district became an instant disaster area and nearly 300 aid agencies from around the world came to the town to help with its recovery.

Tsunami orphans

On that trip I helped organize some grassroots projects for fishermen, widows and orphans who were affected by the tsunami. This year I went back to follow up on these projects and see the state of recovery.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the town was reborn.

The fishing industry has recovered after the Indian government helped out with grants to rebuild boats.

The government also made available grants for farmers to rehabilitate their farmland from saltwater contamination and the relief assistance was focused on the construction of permanent housing for those who lost their homes.

As well, there was financial assistance for widows who lost their loved ones and the area is now feeling more protected because of a new tsunami warning system.

But what I was most curious to know was what happened to the children who were the real victims of the tsunami.

Many lost everything, including their homes and parents, and while I was in Nagapattinam I had the chance to visit the many orphanages there that are a direct result of the tsunami.

Focused on grief

One place I revisited was the Annai Satya Tsunami Rehabilitation Project, which contains an orphanage I first went to shortly after the tsunami hit in December 2004.

Parameswaran and his wife Choodamani at the Hands of Hope orphanage. They adopted 22 children, left parentless by the tsunami. (Siva Swaminathan/CBC)

Then there were 202 children in care. But during the last five years the numbers have gone down to where there are now 72 children, from seven to 16.

Most of them are girls as boys are taken to other orphanages after they reach nine years of age.

Some of the girls recognized me from my first visit. Most of them are well adjusted, according to those in charge, and are attending school right now.

I spoke to the director of the orphanage, a Mrs. Suriyakala, and she spoke of how important it was for her "to get the children into protective custody, away from some NGOs that wanted to make them their poster children."

"For a few years," she said, "we focused on grief and loss counselling and did interactive therapy through art, music and dance to help the children come to terms with their loss."

No longer cramped

The facility I had seen five years earlier was very cramped. But now the children are living in a large building complete with a playground, computer room and TV room, and they are sharing rooms with girls their own age.

All the children attend nearby schools and return in the evening to play, do their homework and watch TV.

These children are not eligible for adoption or to be removed from the orphanage. The municipal government decided it will take care of these children until they find a job or get married. What's more, a trust fund has been set up for each child, for higher education.

I was happy to see the Indian government, with the help of some international agencies, were making sure these kids didn't get left behind or shunted off to some place where they might not know anyone.

My only concern was that I felt these children could really benefit from having mentors or big sisters closer to their age, who they could learn from.

There are caregivers in the orphanage but they are much older government employees. The Nagai government appears committed to helping these children reach their full potential but these children lack direction and mentorship would be crucial for their future.

Hands of hope

On this trip, I met a local couple living by the beach who had lost all their children, two girls and a boy, in the tsunami and who have become something of an inspiration for those seeking to help.

Parameswaran, the father, was able to survive by clinging to a tree but all three of his children were eventually found dead on the beach.

In those early days, when the government orphanage was overflowing with children, the couple decided to take care of 22 orphaned children themselves and started to raise them.

Eventually the couple was able to have two more children of their own.

They also started a charity foundation called Nambikkai, meaning Hands of Hope, to bring financial support for their orphanage.

Today, Parameswaran and his wife Choodamani have built a large home to take care of the 22 tsunami orphans and their two children, with five caregivers around the clock to help out.

When I met the couple, they invited me into their home and were in amazing spirits.

"We could have easily slipped into hopelessness," Parameswaran said. "But we wanted to honour our children's memories by bringing these children into our home and bring happiness to our lives and their lives."

"We also didn't want to move away from the beach since all our lives are connected by the sea."

Lessons for Haiti

The couple has been on many TV shows and been the subject of many articles. When Bill Clinton paid a visit to Nagai after the tsunami and met them, he was amazed by their strength and unshakable human spirit.

He said that he would never forget them for what they were doing and wished people around the world could learn from this wonderful story.

While I was in India, Haiti was struck by the devastating earthquake that left nearly two million people without homes, half of them children.

While many are living in tents and other makeshift shelters, there are no clear plans for their future and there have been a few reports of abduction and child trafficking. These were also concerns in the Nagai area five years ago.

Haiti needs to put in place similar programs that India did to protect the future of its children orphaned by this disaster.

Government-run institutions to provide grief counselling and around-the-clock care for orphans would be a great place to start.

Millions of dollars have poured in to Haiti to help these children and one early use for this money would be for the Haitian government to set up trust funds for the country's orphans so their future is secure and won't depend on the uncertainty of foreign adoption or foster care.

Haiti will need outside help to get these projects set up. But the lesson from Nagai is that much also has to come from the strength of the local survivors.