The tsunami of 2004 and the little girl in the Christmas dress

Ten years ago, when the giant Boxing Day tsunami roared through the Indian Ocean, claiming over 230,000 lives, a CBC News crew found a little girl all alone on the beach in Sri Lanka. Adrienne Arsenault had to go back to find out what happened to Abirami.

'We just had to go back and see what had happened to Abirami'

It's been 10 years since the Boxing Day tsunami roared through the Indian Ocean. Now, Adrienne Arsenault reconnects with a girl from Sri Lanka she met there in the days following the disaster. 8:40

The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 took everything away from her, except for the brand new Christmas dress 10- year-old Abirami was wearing.

Ten years later, CBC sent cameras looking for her again in Sri Lanka.

She's all grown up now and still somehow hanging on to a Canadian connection from long ago.

In those days, a decade ago, surrounded by death, the impulse of all affected was to try to seek out and cling to life.

Our CBC film crew watched plenty of life on a beach outside Colombo back then. Sadly, much of it was grieving men who often sat and stared at the Indian Ocean waiting to see if it would give them back their families.

Abirami Velai, seen here at the age of 10 with a smile that belies the reality that everything she owned was gone, save for the green and white dress she was wearing. Mercifully her family survived the tsunami, largely because they were away from the sea that day. (Ian Kalushner / CBC)

They had been out at sea fishing, or out of the country working, while their wives and little ones stayed home.

That means that when the tsunami came for the coastal communities of Sri Lanka, it just seemed so hungry for the women and children. Many thousands of men were left just to wander the beaches and ruined patches of land alone.

We watched them pick up bits of clothing, silently stare at mangled pieces of furniture tossed into the trees, surely wondering if what remained was really theirs.

That is when we also met 10-year-old Abirami, dressed in a green and white dress, playing on the sand and collecting translucent bugs.

Such a deceptively happy scene. The truth was, though, that the dress was all Abirami Velai had left. And she was collecting the bugs for food, not fun.

Like so many of Sri Lanka's poor she had been living in a shack between the tracks and the sea. By some miracle of timing, she was away from the sea that day, only to return to find everything she owned smashed and pulled back into the ocean.

Not entirely able to process the magnitude of what happened, she focussed on what she knew, that a little cupboard she had bought with the money from a Canadian sponsor family was gone, splintered into tiny pieces and scattered in the water.

We spent most of the day with Abirami, made connections with the charity that had helped support her over the years and promised to try to stay in touch.

So did the Rosta family of British Columbia. They were the sponsor family who had provided the money for that cupboard.

Over the years, connections were kept up, more at first, then very few. But now, 10 years after the tsunami, we just had to find out what had happened to Abirami.

We contacted a local charity called Community Concern that knew exactly where to look. And within a few days, there she was – 20-year-old Abirami.

She earns a bit of money cooking and cleaning for a family. And she has a new treasure, a sewing machine with which she is making striking quilts and clothes.

She bought it with the money that same Canadian family, the Rostas, has managed to send over the years. A promise kept.

She remembers them, and they her, and all remember the panicky pit everyone felt that awful Boxing Day in 2004.

But time has been soothing and the little girl in the Christmas dress is now a woman ready to make plans.

Carmen Therese de Silva was, for years, Abirami Velai's guardian. She still lives with the 20-year-old and has helped her to find jobs as a domestic worker. (Luke Tidball / CBC)

About the Author

Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.


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