Mahlet Endale abruptly stopped her presentation on counseling work in tsunami-torn Sri Lanka on Tuesday afternoon when pointing to a smiling 8-year-old girl in a group photo.
Almost a minute later, Endale regained the ability to speak of an event that she said struck deep into her heart.
The parents of the girl in the photo had asked Endale to take their daughter with her to the United States because they felt it was the daughter's only chance for a life beyond the tragedy that hit their village.
Endale met these and hundreds more tsunami victims from the Navaladi village on the east coast of Sri Lanka, an island country to the southeast of India.
The village, located on a narrow strip of land between a lagoon and the Indian Ocean, was nearly leveled in the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in south Asia.
Navaladi village lost 4,300 members, about half of whom were children, Endale said.
The village was a thriving fishing village but "now it is entirely covered with sand," she said.
Endale, a third-year doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at the University of Georgia, lived in Sri Lanka last February and March as part of the Mental Health Outreach Program, a disaster response team under the United Sikhs, an international nonprofit organization that works to improve the conditions of disadvantaged and underserved people around the world.
Endale spoke to a small but engaged audience at the Athens-Clarke County Library on Tuesday about her experiences working with tsunami victims in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka.
The library hosts a brown bag lunch speaker on the last Tuesday of the month with a different topic each month, said library spokeswoman Stacey Overstreet.
"We always like to encourage dialogue on timely issues," Overstreet said.
Having Endale speak for the lunch series allows people the chance to hear first-hand accounts of global issues, Overstreet said.
"It really brings it home to people," she said.
Endale's presentation left the audience with a heavy sense of utter helplessness and massive loss among a people whose culture is rooted in family and the support family members require of each other.
The tsunami had the most effect on the men - the family caretakers who are expected to be strong and expected not to show emotion, Endale said.
Returning home from their otherwise routine fishing trips, many men discovered their children, and often entire extended families, dead or washed away by the waves, she said.
"What do I do now? Where do I go?" were the questions that Endale heard over and over from men pondering their dismal future.
While some victims claimed the disaster was God's punishment for the country's civil unrest, "others completely lost faith in God altogether," Endale said.
The support groups that began with the help of the counselors helped victims to build a cohesive story of what happened and hopefully, will allow the villagers to resume and rebuild their lives after the aid workers leave, she said.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 113005
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