Grace and Goodwill: The Ballad of Eric-Uncle and Rev. Jey

Photos by James A. Mitchell and VeAhavta Corp.

In his September/October 2006 Humanist article, “Soldier Girl? Not every Tamil Teen Wants to be a Tiger,” James A. Mitchell examined the life of a young girl trained to fight for the Sri Lankan separatist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In this companion piece, an American attorney accepts a challenge from a determined minister to build an orphanage for Sri Lankan girls victimized by civil war and poverty.

“They sounded fine,” Eric Parkinson recalled, referring to the Sri Lankan orphans he spoke to during a phone call from the other side of the world. “Although they all told me about the sounds of the bombing,” the California attorney noted. War stories from the mouth of babes.

The only comfort Parkinson could offer during that call was the promise–one he had made and kept many times before-that he would soon return to Grace Care Center, the home for young girls he had established in 2002 in the port city of Trincomalee in northeast Sri Lanka. The troubled region had survived twenty years of civil war and endured a level of poverty considered among the most severe in the world. Two years after a small measure of hope had arrived in the form of a cease-fire agreement, the December 2004 tsunami blasted ashore, making an impossible situation even more desperate.

In August 2006 the war came back once more to Trincomalee. Parkinson spoke via cell phone to the Grace Care staff and to the children; the youngest were huddled in a small room with the facility’s manager, listening to a recording of bedtime stories that had been made by Parkinson and his wife, Sharon.

In high, squeaky voices the girls excitedly told Parkinson about the nearby bombs. For the better part of two days, nearly nonstop explosions were heard coming from the government-held village of Muttur, which is located just south of Trincomalee, and to the north from camps belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Weapons included short-range artillery from one side and a small fleet of aircraft raining ordnance from the sky on the other. At ground level, along winding dirt roads amidst clustered villages, the occasional grenade or small-arms blast increased the risk of villagers getting caught in the crossfire.

Parkinson told the girls he would see them in a few weeks, a continuation of the promise he first made to a Sri Lankan minister in 2001. In that year, Parkinson accepted the challenge to build a home for young girls orphaned by war and poverty. He formed the nonprofit organization VeAhavta (a Hebrew verb that means “you shall love”) and negotiated a real-estate transaction made unduly complicated by the war. In August 2002 Grace Care Center welcomed the first ten residents to the hundred-bed orphanage. At first the girls all called him “Eric-Uncle,” a title of respect equal to “Mister” in the minds of Sri Lankan children.
It was easy for Parkinson to fall for the orphans. “Cute” doesn’t begin to describe the unbridled joy he saw in their smiling faces. He found they possessed a sweetness made more precious by their awareness of life’s harshest realities. The scars of poverty and war tended to mark them in ways that weren’t always visible.

During his earliest days in Trincomalee, one girl in particular sparked a connection that Parkinson never forgot. “I was playing tag with the girls and picked one of themup,” he said. Child and man laughed together, equal parts fun and amazement. They looked into each other’s eyes. “I know it sounds weird,” he marveled, “but I swear I saw my own son’s eyes.”

Seeing Sri Lanka from a child’s perspective simply confirmed Parkinson’s vision of the Grace Care Center and why it was needed. It didn’t seem fair to him that the laughing young girl he held, destined by factors of fate-location, ethnicity, skin color-would never know the advantages available to Parkinson’s son, who had been raised with comfort and security in a land of plenty.

“One child is born into this color skin with all these advantages, and another is born with nothing,” Parkinson said. “How are these decisions made? Who makes them? The children certainly weren’t consulted. You can go crazy with questions like these. But I saw an opportunity; that’s the way you have to look at it.”

*      *      *

Rev. Dr. S. Jeyanesan, a third-world cleric from the Church of South India, went on a speaking tour in North America in 2001, playing international town crier by telling tales of poverty, violence, and discrimination in Sri Lanka and their inevitable result: civil war. Jeyanesan held no allegiance to political proclamations from any faction-the true majority in that or any other conflict, he stressed, consisted of those whose homes had become someone else’s battleground.

Parkinson had helped arrange the tour through a mutual friend who had been studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and had met Jeyanesan through a Christian organization committed to interfaith relationships. Parkinson’s friend raved about this unassuming minister.

“You have to meet this guy. He’s incredible, and he’s doing amazing work,” Parkinson recalled his friend saying. Before long, a six-city U.S. speaking tour was arranged starting south of Los Angeles. Parkinson invited Jeyanesan to stay at his home while the minister was in California. He hadn’t yet met Jeyanesan, and phone conversations had been polite but focused on travel logistics.

“I’ll never forget the day I picked him up at the airport,” Parkinson said. “He’d seen so much hardship in the world, I thought he would be the saddest, most broken guy.”

Instead, Parkinson welcomed a beaming man filled with hope. Jeyanesan’s dedication immediately impressed the attorney. “I hit it off with him right away,” Parkinson said. “And I was amazed at the work he was doing. At the time he was running five orphanages and two or three nutritional feeding centers in Sri Lanka.”

During the next ten days, the two men spent many hours together, from the regional speaking engagements to the quiet intimacy of Parkinson’s home, where late-night talks over tea revealed a persona that was different from Parkinson’s usual impressions of people who were pushing a religious agenda. A spiritual life, according to “Rev. Jey,” as Parkinson came to know him, wasn’t about talking a good game, but about walking the walk. Why argue about the tragedies of those in need when the same energy can be spent helping the poor, he’d ask. The stories Jeyanesan told weren’t taken from scholarly texts or philosophical offerings, but from first-hand experiences on Sri Lanka’s troubled east coast.

Parkinson was more than just convinced; he was compelled to do whatever he could.
“At the end of his trip, I told him that Sharon and I would like to help however we could,” Parkinson recalled, expecting a request for funds.

Instead Jeyanesan asked them to help build a new orphanage in Trincomalee, a district with a population comprised equally of Tamil, Sinhalese, and Muslim residents, which was a rare melting pot in Sri Lanka. It was also something of a tinderbox in the ongoing civil conflict between the separatists Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese majority government.

Parkinson initially considered just handing over his money and wishing Jeyanesan well. But Jeyanesan convinced him that he must see Trincomalee for himself.

Parkinson first made the nearly two-day trip in late 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks in the U.S., and the large-scale bombing of the Colombo airport by the LTTE. It would have been easy to revise, stall, or even cancel the planned journey, but promises had been made. Property was soon found-seven acres of a crumbling hotel resort that once thrived during a vibrant tourist trade and since had been taken over by monkeys. Grace Care Center would open the following year.

*      *      *

It hasn’t just been the Sri Lankan children who have inspired Parkinson in his endeavors. Encounters in the adult world revealed strengths about the Sri Lankan spirit and character that couldn’t be appreciated by simply reading reports of war, terrorism, or violence.

After the 2002 cease-fire agreement was signed by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, Parkinson learned of prisoners who were still in government custody despite the peace accord. Some were tortured, and all were treated less than humanely in a jail that resembled a medieval dungeon. They were held under the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act, which offered the national police force nearly unlimited powers to arrest and detain. Evidence in a few of the cases Parkinson encountered consisted of signed “confessions” written in Singhalese, a language that few Tamil prisoners could speak or read, let alone write.

A group of eighteen men were kept in a twenty-five-square-foot cell, served a single daily meal of rice through a slot in the wall, and forced to live in their collective excrement. They were told that they could be confined for up to eighteen months under court or police orders. Those orders were final and couldn’t be called into question in any court or tribune. Several exceptions allowed the confinement to continue beyond the prescribed limit, as was the case for several of the men Parkinson met.

Parkinson worked with a local attorney and agreed to finance the representation of eight of the eighteen men he met. The rest would remain without legal counsel or help until VeAhavta could find additional funds.

A group of eighteen desperate men, who had arguably lost all hope, were told that eight of them could be helped toward freedom. Their response astonished Parkinson and would remain among his strongest memories of Sri Lanka.

“Six men immediately stepped forward and told me to help someone other than themselves, since they had neither wives nor children at home while some of the others did,” Parkinson said. Two of the men who lobbied for someone else had been in custody for more than three years. “That just blew me away,” Parkinson said, amazed at the nobility and basic kindness displayed.

When Parkinson left the Batticaloa prison after meeting the inmates, he breathed deeply to clear the smells of captivity from his lungs; he stretched his muscles, uncoiling the knots that seemed to have formed in his back, neck, and shoulders. He realized how tense and on edge he had been throughout the entire visit. “Maybe,” he said, “I was concerned that getting into the prison would be easier than getting out.”

Parkinson did what he could, what he said he would. Eight men were released after just one court appearance (calling into question the severity of the non-charges under which they were held); the remaining ten were released over a span of nine months as Parkinson obtained additional funds.

*      *      *

On August 11, 2006, not long after the orphans had described the bombing sounds to Parkinson over the phone, he received a detailed report from Jeyanesan. The attacks and counterattacks had begun over control of a water distribution point-intended to help those still trying to reestablish their lives after the tsunami-and resulted in the most severe threat yet to the peace process.

“There are approximately 45,000 people displaced by the ongoing battle,” Jeyanesan had told him. (Tens of thousands more would eventually flee the ruins of Muttur and other targeted villages.) Jeyanesan reported that bodies had been discovered along anonymous roadways, adding to the fatalities of the initial assaults. Jeyanesan joined the United Nations in declaring the situation to be a humanitarian crisis worse than the situation that followed the devastation of the December 26, 2004, tsunami.

By late September 2006 Parkinson was back on Sri Lanka’s east coast, working first near Jeyanesan’s home base in Batticaloa. He joined an operation in progress-providing hastily obtained donations to families who made it out of Muttur and other affected areas. Doing so was hardly a matter of just setting up shop. Jeyanesan negotiated with the government to allow safe passage for relief supplies amidst what he described as shelling by both the government forces and the LTTE.

Even with some necessities provided, tragic situations surrounded the effort. One woman gave birth along the roadside during the evacuation; mother and child remained by the dusty trail for days before finding shelter and a meager supply of food.

The volunteer crew recruited by Jeyanesan was the usual Sri Lankan pool, drawn from a mixed population of those who could help. Parkinson had learned long ago to ignore any preconceptions he might have held about ethnic beliefs, religion, or politics. Instead, he now appreciated the value and worth of individuals, people who didn’t always agree with those who claimed to speak for them or act on their behalf.

Sometimes, Parkinson discovered, even warriors work for peace. Sri Lankan Army Major Wijetunge, a man who, Parkinson learned, held no motive other than basic humanity, joined the relief effort.

“He clearly had a genuine desire to help, and he handed out packets himself to the predominantly Tamil people in the camp,” Parkinson recalled. Relief work is a great equalizer, and the day ended with a well-earned tea break, during which Parkinson learned that Wijetunge was looking forward to taking time off to see his wife and his two young children, who were the same ages as Parkinson’s son and daughter in California. The men exchanged nods of parental understanding. They both recognized the universal truth that all parents love their children and worry about them.

They spoke of other things, including a mobile clinic operation Parkinson and VeAhavta doctors were eager to revive. The pre-tsunami clinic had successfully treated 10,000 patients during a marathon session. Wijetunge wanted to help restart the clinic and was prepared to dedicate time to the project.

Wijetunge was killed a week later in a battle not far from the refugee camp where he tried to help salvage lives destroyed by the war. Two more children were left without a father.

*      *      *

In October 2006 Parkinson returned to Nilaveli Beach, about fifteen kilometers north of the orphanage, and entered the nearby Mauro Beach Hotel. He didn’t want to rent a room. He just wanted to reserve the pool for a few hours so the girls of Grace Care Center could have fun and splash each other with abandon.

Parkinson had made so many trips to Sri Lanka that the novelty had worn off, but never the charm found in the smiling faces of the children. They no longer called him Eric-Uncle but “Eric-Appa,” meaning “father” which is the figure he had become to these young girls. They were also no longer afraid of swimming, either in a pool or the very same ocean that terrified them less than two years earlier.

In five years, the California attorney had met the gaze of many Sri Lankans: children whose eyes glowed just like the eyes of children born into Western prosperity, men who sacrificed their own safety so others could go free, and a major trying to help the victims of the war his army had been fighting. Their eyes looked back at Parkinson (as they had over the years at the many volunteers who have shared his dream and commitment), making the connection that tells people they’re not alone in their struggle, that someone cares whether they live or die.

“The best thing we can do is to form a community to reach out,” Parkinson said. “All the money in the world won’t float the boat. It’s human relationships that will.”

Author’s note: Renewed fighting in January 2007 resulted in another 40,000 displaced Sri Lankans, and Jeyanesan expected that nearly 200,000 refugees would be created by March. His estimate proved to be on the conservative end as the renewed war continues.