Sri Lankan woman from Minnesota takes on a more personal mission

BY BRIAN BONNER, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Jan. 23, 2006

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Of the 11 orphans vying for her attention, the one who stood out to Udayanthi "Udi" Perera was the one who stood aside.

"All the other kids wanted to be carried. He stood there and watched, as if to say, 'if you want me, here I am,'" said Perera, who is in her native Sri Lanka to choose a boy for adoption. So she picked him - a 4-year-old boy with full cheeks and luxurious eyelashes.

"First place, first child we saw," she said. "It's like a storybook. It really is." The child will soon become Seth Nadith Perera, the adopted son of Mithula, 48, and Udi, 45.

The couple, who live in the St. Paul suburb of Dellwood, Minn., are U.S. citizens who emigrated from their native Sri Lanka more than a quarter-century ago.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 35,322 people in their homeland, they decided to take an active part in the nation's recovery.

They are among the leaders of a half-million-dollar project to build 50 homes and a community center for tsunami victims, part of the $3 billion reconstruction under way on the tropical island.

But the Pereras wanted to do more. Acting on long-held desires for a boy, they decided to adopt a Sri Lankan orphan - any needy boy, not strictly a tsunami orphan.

As it happened, the tsunami left remarkably few orphans. The number of women and children killed far outnumbered men. Officially, 1,369 children in Sri Lanka lost both parents, but most of them went to live with close relatives.

Udi Perera left Minnesota on Jan. 5 with oldest daughter Maneshka, 21. She found Seth three days later. She returned to Minnesota, without Seth, last week.

She and her husband must wait until March to return to Sri Lanka for a court hearing to make the adoption final. That's when they can bring their son home.

She found Seth in one of suburban Colombo's orphanages. His birth mother is a poor, unwed teen who decided right away to give him up. But she breastfed him, and they lived together in an orphanage for nearly his first two years of life, before she abandoned him for good, the Pereras have been told.

To Udi Perera, the boy's initial reserve at their introductory meeting "shows he's very controlled" and doesn't like too much attention right away. They struck up an easy conversation in Sinhalese.

She picked him up and held him. "It was very touching. I cried."

She liked the physical resemblances she saw between him and her husband. She also interpreted his Aug. 9 birthday as a mystical sign: One of her nephews was born on the same day.

Because she has all the legal approvals needed to adopt, Udi Perera is allowed to come to the orphanage as often as she wants. She also has permission to take him on outings, accompanied by a staff member.

She visited him several times during her most recent visit. The first place she took him was a Buddhist temple, for a ceremonial blessing by a monk. She also had the monk assess whether Seth's astrological sign is a good match with the rest of the family. "We believe in horoscopes," she said.

He passed every exam with flying colors, including a doctor's check-up and her study of his medical records.

He got along well with Udi Perera's relatives, including her father, sister and brother, who all live in Sri Lanka.

Seth also spent time with Maneshka, who wants to follow in her mother's footsteps by becoming a teacher, a school director and a mother. Udi Perera owns three Montessori schools, while her husband sells pharmaceuticals.

"He and Maneshka really bonded," Udi Perera said of Seth. Maneshka is happy to have him as her brother. "I was hoping my last sister would be a boy, but it didn't happen," said Maneshka, who has two sisters, Shanika, 17, and Annaka, 5.

She encouraged her mother to visit other orphanages after finding Seth. But none of the other children touched Udi Perera's heart the way Seth did.

She has not yet explicitly told Seth, whose name means "appointed one" or "chosen of God," that she will become his mother. She wants to wait until the adoption is final. "I think that's too much for a child" right now, she said.

But Seth has figured out what is happening, based on everything she has told him about flying away with her on an airplane and sisters who are waiting for him in Minnesota. He even called her "mama" during an orphanage visit, during which they played games in a sandy courtyard.

She also made a friendly overture to Seth's birth mother, who recently got married. Udi Perera purchased the young woman's wedding ring and had someone from the orphanage give it to her.

"I'm very happy for her," Udi Perera said. "Finally, the sun is rising on her side."

While she has no interest in meeting Seth's birth mother, she won't stop him from finding her when he becomes an adult.

"That's up to the child," she said.

The orphanage where Seth lives in suburban Moratuwa is run by Sarvodaya Suwasetha Sewa Society Ltd. on a road named Sethsiri - more divine signs, to Udi Perera, that she picked the right child.

The prominent foundation operates 12 children's homes on the island for 500 needy kids.

Government assistance is minimal for the organization that relies mainly on private donations, said program administer D.D.L. Subasinghe. He said the government gives about $3 a month per child, "enough for a cup of tea," Subasinghe said.

"We can feed today," he said. "Tomorrow, we have to find money."

Subasinghe said the charity is also financially helping about 30 tsunami-affected children. He said government officials haven't lived up to their promises of providing $50 a month to such children.

Not all children being cared for by the Sarvodaya foundation are eligible for adoption, said Neetha D. Ariyaratne, the charity's honorary secretary. She said the Sri Lankan government favors adoptions of the nation's children by people of Sri Lankan origin, such as the Pereras.

The scope of Sri Lanka's orphan problem can be tough to gauge. But poverty and ethnic strife have left the nation with more than its share of problems, and a lot of needy children and stressed families.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who are fighting for a separate state on the island's north and east for the Tamil minority, have faced international criticism for recruiting children as soldiers.

And the separation caused by large numbers of Sri Lankan women working abroad, many as domestic servants in the Middle East, has put a strain on families.

Also, concern about violations of child labor laws, particularly in tsunami-affected areas, has led the government to appoint Sarath Ranaweera to investigate.

Ranaweera, a former labor commissioner, said he doesn't yet know the full extent of the problem.

While aware of the bigger problems, Udi Perera said her focus is on what she can do personally to help. "I was called for adoption," she said. "If we help one child, that will make a difference."

She describes her maternal style as that of an indulgent "softy," while also trying to impart the obvious pride and ambition that drives her and her husband. "I went to the U.S.A. with two pieces of luggage," she said.

She's already got that pride in Seth: He knows all 52 letters of the Sinhalese alphabet. He knows the English alphabet and his colors. He's a leader among his pre-school peers, she has been told. He is also "very loveable" and likes to give kisses.

"It's a good start," she said.