Art Therapy for Tsunami Survivors

Art Therapy for Tsunami Survivors|Art Therapy for Tsunami Survivors

Sri Lankan children orphaned by storm build skills, express their losses


The month of May found me traveling in Sri Lanka with a group of students and their art professor, Pamela Lawton. The students, from the New School University’s Eugene Lang College, were members of an organization, ANGEL (All Nationalities Gaining Equal Liberties), that arranged with the International Vihara Foundation, which has a local base at the Buddhist Kyryppykanda Temple in the town of Godagama, to work with victims of last December’s tsunami. The students arrived for their work armed with suitcases full of art supplies.

Lauren Gabriela-Mendez, the student organizer, explained their mission: “Every thought or feeling begins with an image… expressing emotions through imagery gives the artist insight into how emotions are affecting their body. By actually going to Sri Lanka and starting our own arts healing program there, we introduced art as an outlet for the children to express themselves emotionally.”

The main road south from the capital city of Colombo runs alongside the Indian Ocean to Galle, center of the coastal area hit hardest by the tsunami. Not long after one leaves the city, the wreckage appears––boats torn up, houses leveled. Rubble is everywhere, and continues for more than 40 kilometers around to the eastern coast. Almost five months after the tidal wave hit on the day after Christmas, the victims were still mostly without homes. Tents were erected on the concrete slabs of what were formerly three- and four-room houses. Potable water had to be hauled from a central location.

We met some local artists and toured inland to the country’s ancient cultural sites before heading to the coast. Outside of Galle, near Godagama, at a turnoff near a shack with a sandwich board outside that read “Tsunami Fresh Juice & Photocopy,” the students and their professor met a large group of children associated with Vihara and its home temple, which is planning on building a village to house children orphaned by the storm.

As the art classes began, it became apparent that some children were somewhat sophisticated and the idea of making images of the tsunami was familiar to them. One boy had written a many-versed song about losing his mother. The New School group worked with this varied, excited collection of young survivors for several weeks. For most of the time they simply gave art lessons––color, line drawing and other basics––and it wasn’t until late in the month that they began to introduce the idea of trying to make pictures of their recent memories.

Talking with Gabriela-Mendez one evening, I mentioned a song that became popular in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic. The words, “It was sad when that great ship went down” from this piece of American folklore were running through my head. The memory of it was prompted by the paintings that the children were doing. In addition to the therapeutic aspect of this work, the group was also teaching the kids to be better artists, which is important because the drawings will be auctioned off to raise money for a permanent residence for them.

Children’s drawings of the tsunami have appeared at fund-raisers for disaster relief and will continue to into the future. The phenomenon of victims of a tragedy working to make a lyrical record of their history seems to constitute a unique genre. As with the support of the New School visitors, most aid to tsunami victims has come through the outreach efforts of small associations that help groups or individuals struggling to recover.

It was encouraging to see the large number of Westerners spending what time they could in parts of Asia where the tragedy occurred. Many treat it as a working vacation, hitting the beach for a while and then spending time helping someone work on their house or another vital recovery task. Organizations such as Vihara are open to individuals who have specific skills to offer in the rebuilding. Visitors are typically charged a fee to participate, but will be provided with lodging and local transportation.


For more information on ANGEL, currently focusing its global efforts on tsunami relief, visit For more information on the International Vihara Foundation, visit, where specific information on the the village housing project the group is planning for orphaned children is described (by clicking on Lama Pura). For general information about doing volunteer work in the Galle region of Sri Lanka, visit

Sri Lankan Airlines, a reliable carrier, will make airfare considerations for visitors affiliated with groups doing relief work. Visit For information about travel and accommodations within Sri Lanka, visit Jetwing Travels at For information about gay travel in Sri Lanka, consult Utopia Travel, the leader in Asian gay tourism, at