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Sri Lankan Tsunami Family, Baby, Visit US Congress


A Sri Lankan couple, and their four-month-old baby, paid a visit to Capitol Hill Wednesday as part of efforts by U.S. legislators to fight woman and child exploitation in the wake of disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Baby 81 was the name given by a hospital in Sri Lanka to little Abilash Jeyarajah, who was found in rubble after the tsunami struck in December.

Then two months old, he was the 81st patient admitted in the wake of the tsunami.

After being claimed by at least eight other couples, and making international headlines in the process, he was finally reunited with his parents but not before a legal challenge and a court-ordered DNA test.

This week, parents, Jenita and Murugupillai Jeyarajah, were flown to the United States with their infant son for the first of what has been a flurry of appearances and media interviews in which they talked about their experiences.

One of their stops was the U.S. Capitol, where they stood with two lawmakers announcing the latest response by members of Congress to the tsunami.

The tsunami orphaned thousands of children across the wide area of the Indian Ocean struck by the devastating waves.

Amid concerns many might fall victim to individuals or groups trying to abduct or use them for sexual or labor exploitation, U.S. lawmakers have been exercising their legislative powers to propose laws aimed at helping protect people affected by crisis situations.

With baby Abilash making himself heard in the background, Congresswoman Nita Lowey explained a bill called The Women and Children in Crisis and Conflict Protection Act.

"Passing this bill is the least we can do for the millions of people who remain at risk around the world, and it is not extraordinary in its goals or its reach, but its passage would be an extraordinary response to an issue that affects more and more innocent people each day," she said.

Mrs. Lowey says the bill, which is being re-introduced in Congress, would require the U.S. government to develop new strategies to ensure that its aid programs can react quickly and efficiently to protect women and children following natural or man-made disasters.

Sonia Khush reperesents Save the Children, which is supporting the legislation.

"A climate like this can open the door to sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse,” she said. “Exploitation of women and children can include trafficking. Fortunately, incidents of trafficking following the tsunami did not occur in hard-hit areas of Indonesia because of the great attention paid to the issue and the efforts that were quickly put in place by the media and organizations like Save the Children. The time is now. These legislative efforts must be passed. The lives of women and children depend on it."

Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States, Devinda Subasinghe, sends an important message of support for children in Sri Lanka and elsewhere:

"The smiles of children as well as his voice behind me of baby Abilash have been the beacon that has kept us focused on rebuilding our future," he said.

Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate sponsored by Senators Richard Lugar and Joseph Biden.

Another Senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu, says she will propose an amendment that would add child-related assistance to the $656 million in tsunami-related aid contained in the large Iraq spending bill the House and Senate will consider soon.