Aid for tsunami victims draw Islanders to Sri Lanka - Families meet up with MIHS grads already in the island country

By Ruth Longoria

In the city of Galle, Sri Lanka, there is the smell of open fish markets, sweat from the sweltering heat and rotting garbage -- left in the streets until eaten by stray cats, dogs and cows, or eventually shoveled onto a trailer and hauled away.

Streams of bus and truck traffic share the narrow two-lane roads with pedestrians, ``tuk-tuks'' (a commonly used rickshaw-type vehicle) and bicycles loaded down with three or four passengers.

Once beautiful white-sand beaches are now littered with the wooden debris of what once was.

Galle is a city of 90,000 where more than 4,200 people lost their lives to the December tsunami, a disaster that claimed the lives of nearly 40,000 nationwide.

It was an intense desire to make a difference and provide much-needed aid that has kept two Mercer Island High School graduates immersed in a mission of mercy to the victims of the killer tidal waves.

Twenty-two-year-olds Kevin Petrie and Logan Gee were in southern India on Dec. 26, 2004, when the earthquake-induced tsunami killed 40 people in that city before they and others were evacuated. Though many tourists may have felt the desire to flee and go back to a safe, home environment, Petrie and Gee felt an obligation and a passion to do what they could to help those who were most deeply affected by the disaster. The young men traveled to Sri Lanka in January and volunteered with Project Galle 2005, a relief effort for villagers displaced by the giant waves of destruction. They have been there ever since.

In the first months after the tsunami, the Reporter carried portions of e-mails the young men sent their parents, Mercer Island residents Roger and Cynthia Petrie, and David and Christopher Gee. Kevin Petrie and Logan Gee were featured in a cable special on the American Life television network, which aired last week, in a segment titled: ``Volunteers for the sake of others.'' The young men are expected back home in a few weeks to replenish supplies before returning to Sri Lanka this fall for more humanitarian endeavors.

``They're thriving on this work, it's a healing process for them as outsiders who witnessed the tsunami,'' said Christopher Gee.

It's not just important to those who were there to experience the fulfillment of helping those in need, she said. Christopher Gee, her husband David and their oldest son, William, also traveled to Sri Lanka at the beginning of May and spent nine days there working with the volunteers. While there, William dug ditches, David helped build houses, and Christopher said she was relieved to work in the office, writing job descriptions and developing organizational charts. It was all an eye-opening experience, she said.

``You just drip in sweat all day long, but you get used to it. And the people -- everyone has a story to tell of where they were and who they lost to the tsunami,'' she said. ``And,'' she continued, ``they all love the Americans, because our military came in with huge machines to help out after the tsunami. It's very wonderful to have that experience and feel that warmth. All of the people have smiles on their faces, in spite of what they have been through.''

Roger Petrie agrees. He also visited Sri Lanka earlier this year. There, Roger Petrie, a teacher and tutor, worked in a warehouse.

``It was 90- to 95-degrees in a metal-roofed warehouse. The perceived temperature was 105 to 110 -- but you feel like you're doing something and it's all worthwhile,'' he said.

As Roger Petrie and Christopher Gee sat in front of the Island Starbucks last week drinking iced beverages and poring over pictures of their experiences and the villagers in Sri Lanka, they told stories of the people they met and the animals that seem to have stories almost as amazing as the people.

``This monkey,'' Petrie said, pointing at a picture. ``He was owned by a family that was killed in the tsunami. He climbed a tree, but the family all died. Now, he's been adopted by the village. He survived.''

Other animals also survived, such as the cows that seem to be everywhere, Christopher Gee said. Kevin Petrie and some of his friends saved a lost kitten they found, they taught it to drink milk and it lived to roam the campsite, kind of as a mascot.

Many residents of Sri Lanka didn't survive. In an earlier e-mail, Kevin Petrie described to his mother an incident he observed: ``She's crying,'' he wrote. ``Her dark brown hands knotted in her plain blue shapeless dress, black hair unwashed, sticking to her forehead. `My baby, dead. My baby... .' Tears gather in the corners of her eyes and follow stenciled wrinkles down to her chin. `My baby, my baby.' What can I do? `I'm sorry,' I say. `I'm so sorry.' She nods and drops her eyes, points to a pile of brick and concrete and broken battered wood. `My home.'''

Now, for the most part, people in Galle live in tents, supplied by various organizations from around the world. Problem is, the tents are designed for the areas from which they come, Roger Petrie said. ``It's monsoon season and people are living in tents on the ground. The Saudi Arabian tents leak like sieves,'' he said. And, he added, some of the tents aren't made for the extreme heat. ``The Dutch tents are dark blue, which retains the heat. So, mosquitoes that fly inside spontaneously combust,'' he joked.

Although Kevin and Logan's parents originally had fears for their safety and now wish their sons would come home, at least for a short while, Christopher Gee said, they are proud of their sons. ``They're doing what they feel they have to do. They have a passion,'' she said.

Kevin Petrie and Logan Gee grew up as friends on the Island and are 2000 graduates of MIHS. Petrie, a student at Bellevue Community College, had planned to attend Evergreen State College and Gee, a graduate of Santa Clara University, plans to attend graduate school in a few years. They were originally in India traveling together, something both men love to do, their parents said. Both young men plan to return to Mercer Island at the end of June and raise money to return to Sri Lanka and continue their work along with the about 50 volunteers with Project Galle. Although Kevin Petrie originally had planned to become a writer, his dad thinks those plans might be altered now that he has had a taste of Project Galle. ``I think he will still want to write,'' Roger Petrie said. ``But, I can see him going into work with a non-governmental organization. He's really enjoying helping people.''

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