What One U.Va. Student Learned from Tsunami Survivors

December 26, 2006
Dec. 27, 2006 — When Curry School of Education graduate student Lynn Ramsson went to help survivors of the December 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka this past May, the experience taught her as much about living after tragedy as she taught relief workers and refugees.
Children have gone back to playing on the beach, she said about what she saw over five weeks on the southeast coast. Sri Lankans living in half-destroyed cinder-block buildings still would invite friends in for tea.

Ramsson, who was born in Bangkok (her mother is from Thailand), grew up in Falls Church, Va., and is set to earn her master’s in counseling at U.Va. Her brother, a 2000 U.Va. alumnus, works for a nongovernmental organization in Sri Lanka, and suggested she come visit, putting her psychosocial knowledge and skills to work.

No stranger to international travel, Ramsson took him up on the idea. With support from the Curry School, she was able to make the trip. Ramsson planned to look at long-term effects of the tsunami in this civil war-torn country and how cultural differences play their roles. She also was to teach social work interns about attending to their own mental health as they helped survivors and to share methods of helping the survivors cope and carry on with their lives.

“Sri Lanka, a democratic socialist republic south of India, has had many names: Tabrobane, Ceylon, Serendip, the Pearl of the Orient, the Teardrop of the Indian Ocean, Resplendent Isle. Though some of these names conjure up images of exotic luxuries and flawless landscapes, Sri Lanka is actually full of riches that are modest yet much more valuable,” Ramsson wrote in an article for the recent issue of the Curry magazine.

The former English teacher at Stuart Hall High School in Staunton, Va., also earned a master’s in literature from James Madison University.

“Five weeks in Sri Lanka left on me an impression as deep as the footprints I photographed in a garden pillaged by hungry elephants. For example, I led a two-day workshop on interviewing skills to a group of Tamil social work interns. Though these students ethnically identify with the minority group in Sri Lanka that is at war with the Sinhalese majority, their desire to help their communities unites them with all Sri Lankans.”

The island nation was one of the countries hardest hit by the series of tsunamis that also blasted areas of Indonesia, India, Thailand and Africa on Dec. 26, 2004, after an earthquake of at least 9.0 in magnitude rumbled in the Indian Ocean. An estimated quarter of a million people died, possibly as high as 60,000 in Sri Lanka alone, with about a million injured and displaced.

The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist and Sinhalese. The civil war of almost 25 years, which involves the Hindu Tamil minority group fighting the government, continues and has hampered recovery efforts. Political interests also have corrupted the distribution of aid.

“Both Buddhism and Hinduism are peaceful religions, but people are fighting like crazy,” she said, adding that their dispute is related to territory and equal rights.

Although people pulled together in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and the spread of disease was averted, much has not been reconstructed in this country, compared with Thailand, for example, which had a wealthier tourism industry beforehand, Ramsson said.

 Because of the conflict, Ramsson was restricted to working in the South, where she found young, idealistic volunteers more willing to put aside their ethnic and religious differences to help each other.

Unlike the American democratic legacy of the separation of church and state, religion there is interwoven with daily life, Ramsson said. Working in a refugee camp housing more than 400 people, Ramsson said people find strength in their Buddhist beliefs, such as reincarnation, to help with grief for children who have died, and letting go of material attachments, to help relieve suffering.

She was struck by their resilience and calls their culture “self healing,” because of the importance of community and group efforts. The people also displayed what Western psychology calls “learned helplessness,” she said, but it has a different meaning there. Rather than giving up, they accept that one can’t change what happened. Instead of that idea being defeatist, it’s interpreted as the opposite — there’s no point in getting depressed about the way things are. Nevertheless, alcoholism and cigarette smoking — which is considered as bad as illegal, Ramsson said – are on the rise. Substance abuse prevention is part of the therapies the psychosocial workers employ, along with art therapy and group counseling.

Ramsson gave a presentation about her trip at a Virginia Education Association meeting in November. What she learned has led her to alter her academic path: she is applying to the Curry School’s Ph.D. program in social foundations, aiming to pursue research about culture and education with a broader global perspective. She said she would like to go back, expanding her area of study to the larger region of Southeast Asia.