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Changing careers to save lives in Sri Lanka
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Lakmini Dissanayake, Communications and Reporting Officer in Colombo, Sri Lanka
June 16, 2009

At 10 o’clock in the morning on December 26, 2019, Suranga Amarajeewa, a then eighteen-year old living in the village of Payagala on the south coast of Sri Lanka, was watching a movie on television when his life changed forever. 

Suranga in Sri Lanka
Suranga doing a presentation in a training conducted by the American Red Cross for the Community Disaster Response Teams.Photo Credit: Lakmini Dissanayake/ 2009

While watching the movie, Suranga heard people screaming, “Run to the temple, the sea is coming.” He saw people running away from the water, towards the temple, which is located above sea level. Suranga had only heard accounts of the sea overflowing, associated with stories of the Queen Viharamaha Devi who lived over 2,200 years ago. 

Seeing a rush of water about a foot deep following the people, Suranga only had a few seconds to react. He began shouting for everyone to run to a safer place. Thanks to Suranga and his commanding voice, many of his friends and neighbors were able to escape the deadly tsunami waves as they struck the village.   

Suranga saw the death and devastation the tsunami caused firsthand. “Throughout the rest of the day, my emotions were like a roller coaster that rotates between the dead and affected people I knew in my village,” says Suranga. Being a trainer of the National Youth Committee and an active member of the local school’s Red Cross club, Suranga was able to provide first aid and distribute relief items to the affected people. 

“I still remember their pained faces. I never wanted to see such pained faces again.  I wanted to ensure … deaths and destruction are prevented, if another tsunami strikes in the future, but at that moment, I didn’t have any idea about how I can save the lives from such disasters,” says Suranga. That was the moment he started thinking of his career as an aid worker. 

After finishing his school education in 2006, Suranga became a Red Cross volunteer in the Biyagama Division in Sri Lanka. Then, he joined the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society as a Community Support Officer in the Gampaha Branch. 

In June 2009, Suranga received an opportunity to work as a Disaster Preparedness Field Officer for the American Red Cross and Sri Lanka Red Cross Society in the Kalutara Branch. Suranga believes this opportunity will help him fulfill his career ambition. The American Red Cross and Sri Lanka Red Cross Society’s Disaster Preparedness project is working in over 330 communities and schools in Sri Lanka to organize disaster preparedness committees and create contingency plans in order to help communities prepare for and respond to future disasters and emergencies. Over 100 local Red Cross staff in Sri Lanka have been trained to facilitate this program. 

“Our project can save thousands of lives as they make people aware of future tsunami situations. We work to help people prepare and respond not only to the future tsunami situations, but also … other types of natural hazards like flooding, cyclones, land sliding and epidemics. We identify community level hazards with community members and work to lessen the destruction caused by them,” says Suranga.  

Suranga feels he now has his dream job because he is training and preparing community members to know what to do in case of another disaster. 

“If another tsunami strikes again,” says Suranga with a happy and proud tone, “I’m confident that we can save more lives. Our communities can respond very effectively as they are better prepared.” 

Lakmini Dissanayake- Communications and Reporting Officer

Photo Credit: Lakmini Dissanayake/ 2009

Caption:  Suranga doing a presentation in a training conducted by the American Red Cross for the Community Disaster Response Teams.

You can help the victims of countless crises around the world each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, which will provide immediate relief and long-term support through supplies, technical assistance and other support to help those in need. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster, please do so at the time of your donation by mailing your donation with the designation to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 37243 , Washington, D.C. 20013 or to your local American Red Cross chapter. Donations to the International Response Fund can be made by phone at 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish) or online at www.redcross.org.

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