Two days after the Christmas of 2004, massive waves killed over 280,000 people almost instantly. Those who survived were left with the painful task of mending broken towns, broken homes and broken hearts.
But a different wave followed on the heels of the tsunami in the form of an international army of volunteers. Two of those volunteers were Eastern senior Jake Weidler and sophomore Naomi Sonne.
“It was like a fire I couldn’t quench all semester,” Weidler said, referring to his desire to help. “I started thinking, what’s keeping me from doing something about this? I’m single, young, I don’t have a mortgage. What’s holding me back?”
Although they had only been friends for a month, Sonne and Weidler bought two $1,500 plane tickets this summer and touched down in Sri Lanka three days later.
“I barely knew her,” Weidler said, “but we prayed and decided to go. I felt called to do it.”
Sonne heard the same call.
“I really felt God speaking to me that I should go,” she said. “I was really skeptical at first but he kept confirming it.”
For Sonne, the trip was an opportunity to bring the reality of the tsunami back home.
“I wanted to hear the people’s stories, get to know the people and then bring that back here,” she said. “I wanted to try and build a bridge.”
The two made plans without any organizational connections, but a last-minute e-mail to the friend of an Eastern professor provided them with an unusual contact.
They were met by a former general of the Sri Lankan army–a fluent English-speaker and key figure working to rebuild the ravaged country. The general whisked them away to an authentic Sri Lankan meal where they met the CEO of Help Sri Lanka Consortium, a group of NGOs partnering to help those affected by the tsunami.
By the end of the meal, Sonne and Weidler had their work cut out for them.
“My greatest fear was that we wouldn’t make legitimate contacts, that we wouldn’t make relationships and build friendships,” Weidler said. “But that definitely didn’t happen. We made contacts. We got about as close to people as you can in two weeks.”
In addition to relationship building, their work centered on rebuilding homes in an area where almost 150 people lost their lives. They helped tear down damaged homes and rebuild new ones, relying on basic English and plenty of hand gestures to communicate.
“When we got there we were overwhelmed,” Weidler said. “Whole houses were destroyed with nothing left but the foundation.”
Early clean-up efforts had removed much of the larger rubble, but signs of the killer waves remained.
“There were clothes stuck in the trees…things stuck in bushes,” Sonne said. “[Despair] was still there but at the same time there was hope.”
After two weeks of hard work and new friendships, the two came home and began processing their experiences.
“It’s been coming out in classes,” Sonne said. She is a missions and anthropology major. “It’s still affecting me.”
Both Sonne and Weidler want to return to Sri Lanka, and both plan to keep in touch with the many friends they made.
“We’re all human,” Sonne said. “There are so many things that can separate us. I wanted to reach out in a tangible way.”