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Children struggle to cope after the tragedy

The tsunami left behind thousands of orphans. NBC's John Seigenthaler reports on what's being done to deal with the traumatized children.

The State Department weighed in Wednesday on something that's been on the minds of thousands of American families — the possibility of adopting children from the Southeast Asian disaster zone. U.S. officials say that is not feasible right now, mostly because it will take a long time to determine which children really are orphaned and which can be cared for by extended family. But the urge to save children is powerful when you see the conditions they're coping with firsthand, as NBC's John Seigenthaler did in Sri Lanka.

GALLE, Sri Lanka — Her name is Rigana. She’s just 12 years old. She’s also one of the tens of thousands of children who lost everything in the tsunami. All she has of her own is her tattered dress. Rigana's mother — her only living parent — was swept away. Rigana survived by clinging to a tree.

Now Rigana’s home is a cramped classroom. She sleeps on the floor like the 350 other children who have found shelter at a refugee camp. Rigana seems numb, is barely able to talk and is closing in on herself.

Some relief workers are starting to refer to the thousands of children affected by this disaster as the “tsunami generation.” Not only do they need food, water, medicine and shelter, experts say they are especially concerned about their emotional scars.

With so many traumatized children, one way relief workers are trying to reach out to them is by letting them express their fears through drawings.     

“I think one of the biggest challenges that we're fighting is to put families — some sort of family structure — back together,” says an aid worker named Michael.

Rigana is lucky.  Her aunt, who is also staying in the camp with her own children, hopes to one day give a home to Rigana.

“If the child is given over to a residential care facility then she [will] feel sad because she lost  all her relations,” says Michael. “And she'll be abandoned again, she'll be like a person with nobody.”

But even if there is no home to go to for now, relief workers want to get the children back to school — back to anything that gives them a sense of being a normal child and belonging.