MOC's Wijesekera returns from Sri Lanka
Published in Sports on January 31, 2005 1:56 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- During Christmas break, Mount Olive College women's tennis player Samanthi Wijesekera made plans to join friends on a trip to the beach for a barbecue, but her plans had to be changed.
Normally, a canceled beach trip wouldn't be an eventful story. But the day of the trip was December 26. And the beach was in Bolgoda -- on the coast of Sri Lanka where a deadly tsunami struck the day after Christmas.
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Wijesekera is a senior biology major with a minor in chemistry. After she graduates in December, her plans are to attend graduate school for pharmacology and return to Sri Lanka to pursue a career in research for a pharmaceutical company.
Born in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Wijesekera and her parents live in Colombo, the nation's capital. Colombo is on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka, opposite of where the tsunami made landfall. According to Wijesekera, the east coast of Sri Lanka is approximately a four-hour drive from her home in Colombo. But damage from the tsunami was felt as close as 50 miles from her hometown.
"In the morning, I got a call that a tidal wave had hit Sri Lanka," said Wijesekera. "I turned on the TV and watched the news."
When the reports first hit the airwaves, Wijesekera says nobody was truly aware of the damage that was done - or was yet to come.
"I didn't know it was that bad," said Wijesekera. "I was actually still planning on going (to the beach) until I started watching more news reports. I heard about the death toll and that the water was moving more inland. Within a half-hour, we started realizing just how devastating the tsunami was."
Wijesekera says after the initial shock, the next reaction by everybody was to try to help the victims.
"By lunchtime, everyone was in supermarkets, trying to buy supplies, trying to collect clothes, water and food for victims," said Wijesekera.
"There was so much traffic in Colombo, people trying to take rations to refugees. In areas that were affected, schools, churches and temples became refugee camps."
She added, "Everyone came together. It was just amazing."
Wijesekera says she is glad she was with her parents and with friends at the time so she knew they were safe.
"It was nice to know where my family was, where my friends were," said Wijesekera. "It would have been difficult if I were here at Mount Olive at the time."
Wijesekera has a brother in England who she says was "frantically worried about us." Phone lines were down until the evening when her brother was able to get in touch and was assured that his family was safe.
Wijesekera had the same problem trying to get in touch with friends and teammates to let them know she was okay.
"I wasn't able to get through on the phone lines until the evening," said Wijesekera. "I called (teammate) Ashley Westbrook. Ashley called Coach Lewis and all of the team members."
After the tsunami hit, Mount Olive head men's and women's tennis coach Burt Lewis says people were asking him if he had heard from Wijesekera and if she was able to stay out of harm's way.
"In the days following the tsunami, I received a tremendous number of calls and e-mails regarding Sam's well-being," said Lewis. "I received many thoughts and concerns, not only from within the Mount Olive College community but also from players and coaches from throughout the conference. The outpouring of concern was astounding and gratifying."
Wijesekera says she has also been amazed by everyone's reaction since her return to campus on January 17.
"A lady in the registrar's office was tearing up when she saw me," said Wijesekera. "People I don't know on campus have told me how happy they are that I'm back. It makes me feel very good that I have friends everywhere, that people care."
Wijesekera's plans to return to Mount Olive had to be pushed back due to the mass evacuation of tourists who were visiting Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit.
Her route from Sri Lanka to Mount Olive includes connections through Tokyo, Chicago and Raleigh, basically a two-day trip. Her original flight to Tokyo was canceled and she had to wait almost a week for the next available flight.
While television video shows much of the devastation caused by the tsunami, Wijesekera says it doesn't tell the whole story. For instance, there were actually two tidal waves that hit Sri Lanka. After the first tidal wave, the water receded almost 200 feet. People actually went into the Indian Ocean, trying to collect fish and corals that had washed up.
She says many deaths may have been avoided if people had started evacuating, but there was no warning that a second wave would hit.
"We talked about warning systems in America for hurricanes, tornadoes and other weather events," said Wijesekera. "But nobody would have ever imagined a tsunami would have hit Sri Lanka."
While there has been a fear of epidemics caused by contaminated water due to the tsunami, Wijesekera says the sanitation is good in Sri Lanka and there is not as much of a concern about an epidemic in her country.
She says what is a concern is the number of families who have seen their homes destroyed.
"People need their houses back," said Wijesekera. "Families are going from living in their own home to sharing a tent with other families."
Another concern has been the psychological toll, both on individuals and on the country as a whole. Wijesekera says that along with the tragedy of losing loved ones is the tragedy of not knowing the fate of missing friends and relatives.
"A lady I know lost her husband, her parents and two sons, and she still has one son missing," said Wijesekera. "She is looking frantically for him. So many people lost entire families. But like so many who are still searching for loved ones, she's still holding out hope."
Wijesekera is especially saddened by the large number of children who became orphaned after the tsunami. She says the country has started an adoption program, starting with the president of Sri Lanka, who adopted the first child.
Through the tragedy and sadness, Wijesekera has tried to focus on the positive, specifically how the world has come to the aid of the victims of the tsunami.
"Thank you to everyone in the world for caring," said Wijesekera. "Teams from the U.S., France, Japan and Russia have been helping out with refugee camps. People have no idea how much the U.S. Marines are helping, how hard they're working, clearing rubble in the hot sun. The people in Sri Lanka really appreciate it."
Wijesekera and her teammates did some fund-raising this past weekend as the Mount Olive College men's and women's tennis teams conducted a clinic on Saturday with proceeds going towards the tsunami relief effort.
Mostly, Wijesekera says a tragedy such as the tsunami has helped her count her blessings and appreciate what she has.
"After this happened, we realized how much we have and how blessed we are," said Wijesekera. "But you also realize how quickly it can be taken away. I really felt special when Coach Lewis told me how many people were asking about me. It motivates me to work harder and appreciate what I have. My life is in God's hands."
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