a difference: (l-r) Tuan Razik and Ruth Pelham.
Across the Water
local fund-raising effort aims to bring direct, practical
help to one tsunami-damaged Sri Lankan village
lost my brother, but I gained a lot more family in New York.”
It’s a brutally cold recent Friday morning in Albany, but
there’s a genuine human warmth inside the M&T Bank branch
at the corner of State and
Pearl streets. TV cameras, photographers and reporters are
crowded around Tuan Razik and Ruth Pelham, who are standing
next to an image of a boat. The pair are telling the story
of how a simple fund-raising drive has mushroomed into a fund
that’s raised thousands of dollars to buy fishing boats for
fishermen in Razik’s home village, Hanbantota.
As he explained, Razik lost many close family members in the
tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people and devastated
coastlines across Southeast Asia and Africa. But he’s transformed
that inconceivable grief into a positive effort to help rebuild
A few days before the press conference, singer-songwriter,
educator and Capital Region mainstay Pelham still seemed amazed
at everything that’s happened—and by how fast it has all come
so wired, this has been such an amazing few weeks,” she said.
“When it really hit me that Sri Lanka was involved—I’d been
there for a month back in 2002—I had two thoughts: Are my
friends alive who live there, and what about Tuan Razik’s
Following the 20th anniversary celebration of the Music Mobile,
the arts-in-education summer program she operates in Albany,
Pelham traveled to Sri Lanka for a month-long tour. Working
with Sri Lankan musicians and children was a deeply moving
experience for Pelham. And it led, directly, to meeting Tuan
I came back from Sri Lanka, I went over to Stuyvesant Photo
to develop my film. And the owner said, ‘Sri Lanka? Do you
know Tuan Razik? He works next door at Breugger’s.’ ”
So, the ever-gregarious Pelham went right next door and introduced
herself: “And [Tuan] was immediately welcoming and open-hearted.”
Over the next few months, Razik helped her with her pronunciations,
and translated some of the songs she learned. Razik and his
wife invited her to their home, and she was invited to the
holiday party of the Sri Lankan community of the Capital Region.
Then, as people do, they lost contact (“We both just got busy
with our lives”), until the tsunami struck.
I heard about the tsunami, I called Tuan that Tuesday morning,
and he told me that he had just heard that he had lost his
brother, sister-in-law and their two children,” Pelham said,
adding, “and he was, as you can imagine, completely grief-stricken.
He said that he very much wanted to go to Sri Lanka immediately
to be with his family.”
The problem was money. At first, Razik was considering taking
out a loan to pay for his ticket. But Pelham had another idea:
Why not start a fund? After making a number of calls to various
people she knew, Pelham got in touch with Al DeSalvo, the
community reinvestment officer at M&T Bank.
talked with Al DeSalvo, and he said ‘We can set up a fund.’
Thus, the Friends of Sri Lanka Fund was born. Calls were placed
to the local media, and before they knew it, all the TV stations—WTEN,
WRGB, WNYT and Channel News 9—were interested. Money started
coming in. Tuan left for Sri Lanka.
Ruth said, “while Tuan was in Sri Lanka, his employer, Breugger’s,
generously decided to cover the cost of his ticket.”
Which brought up a new question—what to do with the money
raised by the Friends of Sri Lanka?
seen the worst of the ocean, you know, when I’ve crossed the
Atlantic, the English Channel . . . I’ve seen the worst.”
Before he settled in the United States in 1989, Razik worked
on commercial ships for five years: “My wife’s from here.
I used to come on a banana boat to Albany. I used to go to
the seamen’s mission.”
why it bothers me, all those innocent people. . . .” His voice
trails off, then he adds: “The ocean can be your friend, and
it can be dangerous, too.”
The post-tsunami trip home to Sri Lanka was as bad as Razik
anticipated. Seeing the damage to his home town, Hanbantota,
was emotionally devastating. He felt like he needed to do
something, so he went to the local officials.
asked, ‘Is there anyway I can help you with food?’” Razik
remembered. “They said ‘We don’t need any food, we have enough
food.’” He gave them what money he could, but still wanted
to find another way to help.
The next morning, as he always did when he was growing up,
Razik got up early, at “5 or 6 o’clock,” and walked to the
was looking at the beach, and the whole beach was empty: no
fishermen, no boats, nobody on the beach. And then one fisherman
came, who I’ve known from childhood. And he said, ‘I lost
my wife, I have four kids, and there is no way I can feed
my kids because I don’t have a job. . . . If I had a boat,
I’d go fishing today. A lot of people [are] scared to go fishing
now, but I’m not.’ ”
Razik said forcefully, “hit my heart. And I said, ‘I’m going
to buy you a boat.’ He said ‘It costs $300.’ ”
Razik soon found someone else, a neighbor with a large family
to support, who also lost his boat to the tsunami, and needed
a new one. He had enough money to buy the two boats. So, he
called Pelham back in Albany.
said, ‘We have some money in the fund.’ ”
That is how the fund was transformed into a means to buy fishing
boats. The money, Pelham said, is wired directly to a manufacturer
in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. The boats will be distributed
to fishermen based on a lottery system. There’s no overhead;
there are no middle-men.
As of the morning of the press conference—Friday, Jan. 21—enough
money has been raised to buy 35 boats. As soon as the reporters
leave, Pelham is going to meet with M&T’s Joe Tumonis
to sign the papers to effect the money transfer to the boat-builders
Pelham is, as ever, focused on the community-building aspect
of the project. She’s made arrangements with another Sri Lankan
friend, musician Lakshmi Danayanthi, to travel down to Hanbantota
to take pictures of the fishermen with their boats. Danayanthi
has volunteered to do this, because she agrees with Pelham
on the importance of the personal connection between the two
communities. It’s a way for the people back here in the Capital
Region—the schoolchildren in East Greenbush and Duanesburg,
the numerous folks who’ve donated sums large and small—to
see the direct results of their generosity.
Or, as Pelham tells the departing press: “Everyone who needs
a boat will have a boat. Because we’re all in the same boat.”