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Making a difference: (l-r) Tuan Razik and Ruth Pelham.

photo:Joe Putrock

Hands Across the Water
By Shawn Stone

A local fund-raising effort aims to bring direct, practical help to one tsunami-damaged Sri Lankan village

 

‘I 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

North 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 lives.

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 together.

“I’m 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 family.”

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 Razik.

“When 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.

“When 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.

“I 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.

“Meanwhile,” 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?

“I’ve 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.”

“That’s 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.

“I 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 beach.

“I 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.’ ”

“That,” 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.

“Ruth 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 in Colombo.

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.”


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