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World Mag > WM Fall 2016 edition > Remembering the Sri Lanka Tsunami

Remembering the Sri Lanka Tsunami

History through the eyes of those who lived it, First hand accounts & testimonials.
Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka


Sri Lanka Tsunami

History through the eyes of those who lived it 

"Sunday, December 26th, 2004 – Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand HUGE earthquake. Monster tsunami.

We had decided to go snorkeling. Around 9:30 we headed out from Phuket towards the small island of Phi Phi, motored around and came to an opening into the island that was about 8-10 meters wide.

We entered, snaked through and came into a large natural pool. The boat anchored and our guide told us that we would have 20 minutes to swim. After only 3-4 minutes the crew began yelling at us to get back into the boat. Last on the boat, as soon as my foot was on the ladder, the captain gunned all three of the 200 horsepower engines and... we went nowhere. 

Upon entering this enclosure we had been in at least 3 meters of water and now... now we were beached on the sand. Looking over the edge of the boat it seemed like 90% of the water had been sucked out in an instant.

The people on the boat began panicking. Tensions grew as people began looking around for answers but were only met with blank stares. As quickly as the water had left us, it was ooding back in with amazing force as it funneled through the small opening. The guide started yelling and throwing life jackets everywhere. From being stuck on the sand, we were being pushed back into the rocky edge. The captain lowered the engines into the water, and again gunned all three engines, with no positive e ect. As we got pushed farther back, the captain steered towards the left edge and managed to slowly move ahead as he clung close to the edge of the rocks. A large wave of water was coming towards the boat quickly. It seemed like we were oating in place forever, engines ready to explode, but we were inching forward and nally, we managed to edge out of the cove. Two boats didn't make it out and capsized in there.

We waited. Twenty minutes turned into forty and soon sixty. Hours later we arrived back to Phuket... to a di erent pier, made of steel and cement. There were dozens of boats hanging around 100 meters out. And there were dozens more close to shore, capsized... and lots more on the shore and on the road, destroyed. What the hell had happened? We were raced to the pier, hustled o the boat and whisked onto buses by ambulance attendants and policemen and guys in emergency uniforms – still not knowing what was going on. We were taken to the tourist rescue center. As we pulled in, the gravity of the situation began to hit us. State of emergency... 9.1 earthquake on the Richter scale... tsunami... hundreds and hundreds of people at the rescue center, many of them in bandages... announcements of missing people... a German woman in her bikini at 10:30 at night who had lost her belongings, passport, clothes, camera... as well as her husband.

The damage to hotels along the beach was absolute. There was no access or power to get back to our hotel. More panic as reality ever so slowly sank in a little more... our passports? Our tickets? Our stu ? Our money to get out of here? We thought to ourselves... 'We are on vacation... what is going on here? This kind of thing happens on TV, to other people. Not here, not now, not to us.' Slowly, more drops of reality sunk in.

Monday, December 27th, 2004 – Patong Beach, Phuket Thailand

The streets were covered in sand and debris of all sorts. The vast grassy areas of the hotels were cluttered with beach chairs, tables, splintered pieces of wood, and cars.

Cars and scooters were oating in pools, two buses were crammed into a coffee shop, and a third was ipped on end and resting up against a hotel. A 100-foot yacht was smashed in half up against the palm trees lining the boardwalk. 40-foot speed boats were lying in the middle of the street, 200 meters from the shore. The damage was absolute. At 8:30am on Monday, December 27th, 2004, the National Guard and the others who had begun the clean up, as well as the rest of the world that was tuning in, had no idea of the degree of tragedy still to be uncovered." (Bird, 20-22)

An extract adapted from Lorne Bird's account of his personal experiences in Thailand, December 2004. 


On December 26, 2004, a gigantic earthquake occurred near Sumatra, Indonesia. With a magnitude of 9.1-9.3 and a Mercalli intensity of IX (Violent), the earthquake triggered a sequence of devastating tsunamis, causing destruction in 14 countries and killing over 230,000 people.

Many have referred to this event as one of the deadliest natural disasters recorded in history. In the village of Peraliya, Sri Lanka, the beach experienced the rst of the 30 meter-high killer waves at 9:30 AM, ooding the community. By the 3rd of January, 2005, over 30,200 deaths and 21,500 injuries had been reported by Sri Lankan authorities. 

Following the aftermath of the events, led by Andrew and Champa Nicholson, AISB came together to raise funds and donations for those in Sri Lanka. "AISB students, faculty, and parents worked for several months to gather supplies and money for the tsunami victims
of Sri Lanka. A team of interested parents, teachers, and students met to form a plan as to how our school would respond. The community partnered with schools in the affected regions and leapt into action to raise funds for the victims in Sri Lanka. Everyone got involved with as much as they could give; students lead initiatives and performed odd jobs, baked for bake sales, hosted dinner parties, sold t-shirts, organized car boot sales, and hosted dances and talent shows, among others, to raise money; the Parent- Teacher organization donated funds from their Annual Auction Gala to help the cause; and teachers liaised with the IBO o ce and other international schools to identify which schools in Sri Lanka needed the most help." (Bishop, 23) 

At the end of June 2005, Charlie Brian (G4), Rachel Dane and Zainab Syed (G8), Adam Glover and Jurgen Strohmayer (G9), Thomas Brian, Moshe Gordon, Jonathan Kyritsis, Paul Predusel, and Oana Toma (G10), Diana Damian, Cathy Kyritsis, Meagan Mix and Jackie Wentworth (G11), and Udai Malhotra, James Stewart, and Emma Wolthers (G12), packed their bags for Sri Lanka. On Monday, June 20th, 2005, together with teachers Andrew and Champa Nicholson, Jon and Maree Alderson- Brian, and John Bishop, they landed in Sri Lanka ready to offer support on the ground. Together, they would be "teaching children, playing games with them, singing songs, constructing buildings, painting walls... doing whatever they could to help show their commitment and concern for those in need." (Bishop, 23)

"The first two days we organized into groups. Each group then went to the shops with their assigned teachers to buy supplies, including books and general school supplies. The orange bags that we had brought from Romania, 211 of them as Rachel and I had last counted, were put in neat lines in the hotel foyer and lled with pencils, erasers, etc. for the children. This task took a lot of effort but all the sweating and working in the heat (as there was no AC in the foyer) was not wasted. We talked to Mr. Sarath Ranasinghe, the school supervisor who told us 'the people you have come to help are poor, but after the Tsunami, they are even poorer. They are devastated, frustrated and traumatized.' That was the challenge we had to face, to make their burden a little less.

This school had 600 children out of which only 250-300 had returned. Some had changed schools, stayed home or had died in the tsunami. The school had lost 3 teachers, and 9 students had lost both parents. Twenty students had lost one parent, almost all had lost a loved one and 1,800 bodies had been washed into their school grounds. These children had seen and experienced it all. As I saw the school for the first time, I was aghast. I felt tears surface. The school was half destroyed, the foundation of one building remained and temporary wooden huts were built as classrooms. They had old rusty tables and chairs, no windows, and the doors leading to the rooms had been washed away. The entire scene was appalling.

As I stood in the school grounds I felt excited and nervous at the same time. I didn't know what to expect. Would the children really take to us? Would they like us being there? My fears were immediately set aside as I saw two young girls wearing recently washed white uniforms, smiling at us, waving, and very anxious to meet us. By holding our hands, asking our names, ages and nationalities and showing us their school, they made us feel at home. Though the odds were against them they had not lost hope.

It felt good to be part of a group of 15 students from 10 di erent nationalities, rising above all di erences of language, faith, and cultures to work together and help others. My one hope in writing of this experience has been to pass the message around, to encourage others to take initiatives, no matter how small, so they too will help people like those in Sri Lanka." (Syed, 11-12)

"These students should be commended for their courage, commitment and generosity," writes John Bishop, former AISB librarian.

Bird, Lorne. "Tsunami Relief Eyewitness Account." Carpati Chronicle, Mar. 2005, pp. 20-22

Bishop, John. "AISB & Tsunami Relief – Trip to Sri Lanka." Carpati Chronicle, Jun. 2005, pp. 23

Syed, Zainab. "The Sri Lankan Experience." Carpati Chronicle, Oct. 2005, pp. 11-13

Edited and compiled by Salwa Patricia Khalil 






In the midst of all that seems to divide us in the world today, I find myself constantly thinking of moments that have brought us together – The Sri Lankan Experience, as I had written in my journal 10 years ago was one such instance. In the decade that has passed, I may be hazy on some of the details but I will never forget the horror of watching the news unfold, the images that pierced through us and how, almost immediately, the Nicholson’s took the lead and the whole school followed in what can only be known as an outpouring of love and compassion. There was nothing, really, that connected any of us to those who had been struck by the devastation in Sri Lanka, except our shared humanity – and back then, it was enough.

I was honored to be on the first trip to Sri Lanka with nineteen others. I remember being overwhelmed. Intimated. Lost. Mostly, I remember my heart being swollen, so large in my chest I felt like my then 15 year old body was much too young to carry a heart that big. The time we spent there changed me in ways I am still unraveling. It instilled in me a commitment to a life of service. Of using my privilege to make someone else’s world a little richer. To do it with humility and sincerity. This ardent desire to be of use is something I am still unable to shake off and I hope I never can.

What I learnt about giving with grace, about humanity beyond color, about resilience in the face of erosion from the people I was privileged to serve in Sri Lanka, and the ones who shared the journey with me from Romania, are lessons I still use to help me navigate my role in this world. Many of us, from the “original” crew are scattered across the earth and haven’t spoken since but I am sure they would all agree that what we did on the ground that summer was perhaps a small dent in the lives of those we met, but what they gave us stretches across lifetimes, and I have never been more grateful.

There are faces still etched in my memory whose names I do not remember but whose strength I can never forget – it is the greatest gift I have carried inside of me ever since.

Zainab studied Political Science at Brown University and is currently a performance poet and entrepreneur. She runs WORD Ink, a start-up that creates safe spaces in Pakistan that empowers the youth to respond to the violence around them in a non-violent manner, for example, through workshops and poetry slams. She launched WORD Ink earlier this year with her co-founder Zohab Khan. Find out more at www. pakistanpoetryslam. com and 



The day I heard that a group was being put together for a relief trip to Sri Lanka, was the same day I asked my parents’ permission to go. Zero hesitation. Landing in Sri Lanka, it was my first time in a developing country. I had never experienced such chaos, and it was almost refreshing. As soon as our plane touched down, we were o to work collecting school supplies, stuffing backpacks, planning lessons - all while adjusting to the outrageous time change. Colombo was insane, but arriving in Hikkauwa was the true eye opener. Homes, businesses and schools had been washed away; sailboats had been tossed onto the shore. Trees were knocked down, their roots pulled through the earth and up towards the sky. I was not prepared for the emotions that I felt. I had not prepared myself for the devastation, the trauma, the heat, and I had certainly not prepared myself for the absolutely heartwarming and welcoming souls of the people of Sri Lanka. We de-rusted and re-painted desks, sweating under the sun. There was dancing, singing, and a million smiles. We laid down foundations for a few new buildings, and a new start for the lives of those a ected. Following this once in a lifetime experience, my view of the world changed. I no longer saw life from a “ first world” point of view. I had a new understanding of what others experience on a daily basis, and it set o my love for the world. It broadened my ideas of religion, lifestyle, food, family, and even friendships. And even after 10 years, I still give my thanks to Andrew and Champa Nicholson, for guiding us on a journey that will stay with me forever. 

Rachel attended the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and studied technical theatre. She is now living and working in Tel Aviv after becoming an Israeli citizen last year. She is currently working to help expand the English language theatre and performing arts community in Tel Aviv with The Stage. The Stage TLV is an incredible, non-pro t organization that was established in 2013, and is made up of volunteers from all around the globe who provide year round productions and workshops, supporting any and all forms of art in Israel. 




I find it hard to believe that it has been twelve years since that fateful December day when myself, and two others from the AISB community were caught in the Tsunami. We were in Sri Lanka, in the seaside community of Hikkaduwa speci cally. And though we were unharmed, and all made it home safely, there are sounds and scenes that will never leave my mind from that dreadful day... days. I remember that Mr. Bird had similar tales from his experience of the event in Thailand.

What was possibly more memorable though was the outpouring of compassion, support and altruism that came from the AISB community upon our return. I watched the entire school family mobilize, and work toward tangible projects so that we could all participate in bringing some degree of relief to the region.

I watched the PTO host a huge fundraising and awareness campaign.
I saw our youngest students brainstorm ideas of how they could support the school e ort. The Elementary Student Council hosted fundraising events, including a wonderfully messy afternoon decorating cupcakes, and donating the proceeds to the cause. Our director at the time, Dr. Bieber, recognized this heartfelt response, and allowed teachers to get involved as well. I watched the older students come together and plan events, fundraisers,  and eventually choose a group of High School students who would actually go to Sri Lanka to e ect some concrete relief to the victims. The community raised something like $78,000 USD, and we assembled a team to go to Sri Lanka and rebuild a school.

I don’t think I’ve ever been part of anything as noble or rewarding as that trip. I know that as an educator, I’ve never been prouder of any group of students. The coordinating teachers, Champa and Andrew Nicholson, did a phenomenal job, and the rest of the adults attending were constantly impressed and inspired by what the AISB team was able to achieve. When we left, we were not the same people who had come with a pocket full of dollars. We had opened our hearts, made friends, learned what it means to be a citizen of the world, and we built a new school building that revitalized a community that had lost everything, including hope. I know I said it twelve years ago, but thank you all for showing me a side of yourselves that made it safe for a side of myself to shine too. Your virtue, generosity, and strength of character, truly changed me forever.

John Bishop was Librarian at AISB between 2000-2006. He moved on to work in libraries in The
UAE, New Zealand, and Russia. He and Bogdan Mihai currently run a photography/ videography company called Buburuza Productions in Huntsville, Texas. 



There are hundreds, if not thousands, of experiences in anyone's life that can have an impact on them.

There is perhaps, nothing more profound than immersing yourself in a shared experience that tries to make a positive di erence in the lives of others.

The AISB Sri Lankan Project that I was privileged to be a part of was such an experience.

The tragedy of the tsunami which struck Sri Lanka and other parts of Asia was brought much closer to home because there were friends and colleagues directly affected.

They were there at the time and witnessed the devastation.

Some were lucky to survive themselves. Their chance to survive provided our chance to assist other survivors too.

The AISB Sri Lankan Tsunami Relief Project was born out of a desire to make a di erence on the ground, speci cally in an area that had been significantly affected. 

Collectively and collaboratively, the entire AISB community came together to raise funds, gather materials and make plans to go to Sri Lanka to make a di erence in the lives of the local people of Hikkaduwa.

I sincerely believe we did.

However, perhaps the biggest di erence such an experience may have is in your own life.

To be involved in such a project is challenging. There are logistical, professional and personal challenges that must be overcome. But it is also a humbling experience. 

It is a chance to reflect upon your own life and how fortunate you may be in comparison to others. It is a chance to share your humanity. To touch the hands of others, to share e ort and laughter.

It is ultimately an enriching experience that will last a lifetime.

If you have an opportunity to become involved in such a project, take it!

Become engaged. Immerse yourself.

In the words of Terry Fox, a young Canadian who lost his own life in his attempt to support survivors of cancer:


Jon Brian taught at AISB between 2000 and 2007. He now lives in his home city of Sydney, Australia, where he happily avoids full time employment by working as a Tour Guide with some of Sydney's leading experiences. He would be delighted to share his memories of his time in Romania with you, as well as his knowledge of and passion for the city of his birth, if ever you plan to travel to Australia. Drum bun! 



The aid from AISB came not only through the provision of instant support to restart the school work, but later continued until the new buildings were built. Finally, the AISB group provided a much needed computer lab. 

The story  of the Tsunami disaster and AISB 

After the earthquake on December 26, 2004, a series of devastating tsunamis struck southern Asia, a ecting 14 countries and killing over 230,000 people. In Sri Lanka alone, over 32,000 deaths were reported.

Entire communities were destroyed and among them, schools were shattered to the ground. The International Baccalaureate Asia Paci c o ce made a global help cry throughout the IB Schools Network aiming to rebuild the lost educational facilities.

The American International School of Bucharest promptly responded, lead by Andy and Champa Nicholson. Together, the school mobilized and worked to raise funds and support for those in Sri Lanka and in the summer of 2005, a group of teenagers from AISB, along with several other teachers, made their way to Sri Lanka. They became one of the best schools in the world, among 40 international schools linked with the Overseas School of Colombo, to contribute immensely to the schools that had been destroyed by the tsunami on the coast line of Sri Lanka. The AISB team chose to rebuild two schools in the south, namely: Peraliya Sri Jinarathana School, the school near a train crash site that alone killed over 2,000 people, and the other one further south, Godauda Secondary School near Dickwella, close to Matara.

At the Peraliya School, the AISB team promptly repaired the only remaining two story building where the second oor was ooded by the rising killer wave. More than 8 buildings were destroyed and students were taken to a nearby Temple to have some lessons, but the place was completely overcrowded.

There wasn't enough furniture or other facilities for all the children who came to learn. But the students and the teachers were motivated by the AISB group who worked hard to do their best. The next step was to build a temporary school building on the remaining foundation, lead forward by the funds provided by AISB with pouring support from the AISB community. 

On their rst visit to the Godauda School in Dickwella, the AISB team was welcomed by all the students who were lined up in front of the school. AISB donated school bags and other materials to each and every student. Furthermore, a number of other key supplies with which to run the school's main o ce were generously given.

The Janoda Foundation was a new nonpro t organization when the tsunami struck. We all worked in collaboration with the Overseas School of Colombo with the mission to rebuild the schools destroyed by the tsunami. The government of Sri Lanka recognized the service rendered by the Foundation and in 2006, donated a plot of land to establish the Foundation in Hambantota.

Since then, the Janoda Foundation has grown strongly by contributing to supporting educational empowerment. They help Preschools and Kindergartens, and train teachers in the district, making an e ort to build more facilities in the neighboring schools. The model preschool built at the foundation became the center of teaching practice. International Youth Volunteer Projects with students from the UK, Canada and China, are making signi cant progress in modern volunteer opportunities in the global youth community. Since 2008, cultural and ecological exposure towards global understanding and sustainable development has grown significantly.

Karu Gamage
Founder/President, Janoda Foundation
Ex-IBO Project Coordinator 2005-2008
Sri Lanka Coordinator, Partner School Worldwide, UK

Janoda Foundation is now open for gap year and vacation time youth volunteers with service projects or research work from one week, two weeks and for longer service learning. Contact: 


Read the entire WORLD Magazine Fall 2016 edition here.

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