Volume 17, Number 45 | April 1 — 7, 2005

B.P.C. creates a tie with tsunami village

By Zachary Roy

Battery Park City Cares, a group of B.P.C. residents committed to providing aid to survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunamis, is going to focus its efforts helping one Sri Lankan village with the rebuilding process.

The group is creating a sister-city relationship with Perilya. Located on Sri Lanka’s southwestern coast, Peraliya has been named the “ground zero” of Asia, which B.P.C.C. members say creates a connection with Lower Manhattan.

“Initially we’re going to be working with the town of Peraliya,” said Robin Forst, B.P.C.C. board member and an aide to Councilmember Alan Gerson. “We’re starting there, but it’s just the first stage. Eventually we hope to do more in more places.”

At a meeting Thursday night at the B.P.C. Regatta, the group discussed helping Peraliya. Craig Hall of B.P.C. Cares has researched Peraliya’s predicament extensively and he agrees that it is the right place to contribute aid. “This place is called the “ground zero” of Asia,” he said. “If that’s not a tie for us, I don’t know what is. We live so close to ground zero here, literally two blocks away.”

The months-old organization hopes to help victims in more tangible ways than simply donating money, such as providing durable bicycles to survivors, a project being spearheaded by B.P.C.C.’s Youth Committee. Because wells are contaminated in the tsunami’s wake, the group hopes that the bicycles and possibly three-wheeled motorized vehicles that they might also supply, will help villagers with the 10-mile journey they make everyday to obtain clean water.

Initially they considered shipping bicycles from America, but according to Seth Bennett of B.P.C. Cares providing bikes made locally in Sri Lanka is a more cost-effective strategy. He estimates that each bike will cost about $81, or $69 each if they purchase 1,000 bikes or more. The three-wheeled vehicles would be about $2,500 each.

Much of B.P.C. Cares’ energy since it was founded in January so far has been spent on learning as much as they can about the needs of the survivors. To that end they are working with members of the New York Buddhist Vihara in Queens, a Sri Lankan community.

Temple members addressed B.P.C.C. at Thursday’s meeting to speak about the devastation and to offer insight about the most effective ways of providing aid. Sarath Ranasighe presented a home video he shot five weeks ago while visiting Peraliya, where he owns a home.

For the B.P.C. residents who will forever be haunted by the 9/11 attacks, the images hit close to home. Most of the village’s buildings were reduced to rubble. Boats lay in the streets, hundreds of meters from the ocean. A man was pulling his household possessions from a well in which he had dumped them to protect them from the oncoming tsunami. With their homes destroyed, most people in Peraliya are living in tents where the temperature can reach 120 degrees in the afternoon.

In the video’s most chilling moment, Ranasighe’s video camera panned across a train that had been smacked by the tsunami, killing 1,500 passengers. “When you stand there, you feel this feeling creeping down inside you,” Ranasighe told those at the meeting. “It’s a humungous graveyard just right here.”

While his video captured the widespread decimation in the village, it also demonstrated that there is hope. Ranasighe interviewed native and foreign aid workers, laboring side by side, not only treating survivors, but also planning for the future with proposals to build a new community center, housing, a school and an orphanage. According to Hall, this network of organization on the ground in Peraliya makes it the ideal village for B.P.C. Cares to focus its efforts.

“There are people from all over the world who have given up their holidays, and they went to Peraliya to see what they could do to help,” Hall said. “They have become very organized. They’ve formed an alliance with the local villagers, which we think is crucial for anything to get done. They write down what they need and they go out and try and get it anyway they can. They’re desperate.”

Ideally, Peraliya’s new infrastructure must be “tsunami-proof,” meaning buildings would be built with breakaway walls on the lower levels and reinforced concrete pillars. B.P.C. Cares has proposed to sponsor a contest with the American Institute of Architects in which entrants would design tsunami-proof buildings that could be built with local materials for the new Peraliya.

But such a design would take at least three months to select. In the meantime the village desperately needs money, supplies and more expert assistance from plumbers, doctors, architects and other specialists. Forst said that the group is entering its fundraising stage, in which it hopes to raise money to support its initiatives.
Helen Hall, a B.P.C. resident and chief accountant for UNICEF, cautioned B.P.C Cares members to keep fundraising objectives broad, advertising them as being for tsunami victims and not for something specific like bicycles, in case there are any unexpected changes in their specific, planned aid projects.

The B.P.C. Youth Committee is planning several events to raise money for their aid projects to Peraliya, including a refreshments-, crafts- and raffle-table at the Tribeca Film Festival’s family street fair on April 30 and a flea market at P.S. 89 in June. The N.Y.B.V. said that the children of their communities would assist the B.P.C. youth’s fundraising efforts.

“Nothing is left for the people of Peraliya,” Ranasinghe said. “This is a land with plenty, so something to spare for these people who don’t have anything will go a long way. The chapter is just beginning. Ground zero to ground zero. Feelings are the same no matter where you are. Giving is good for you heart and your soul.”

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