A week after a 4-month-old tsunami survivor was reunited with parents following a wrenching custody battle, the family of the boy known worldwide as “Baby 81” packed their bags Wednesday for an unexpected trip to New York — courtesy of an American television network.
Sporting a black spot on his forehead and cheek to ward off evil, Abilass Jeyarajah and his parents were seen off Wednesday by relatives and neighbors in this eastern coastal town as they set off for the capital, Colombo, for a Sunday flight to the United States.
A week ago, Abilass was given to his mother and father by hospital officials after a local court ruled that DNA tests confirmed he belonged to the couple, who lost him in the Dec. 26 tsunami.
Initially, eight other couples had tried to claim him, sparking a drama that captured hearts around the world and became a symbol of the tragedy that killed nearly 31,000 people on the island.
“This is something I never dreamt in my life,” the boy’s father, Murugupillai Jeyarajah, said about the two-week trip arranged by ABC.
“I simply wanted to be here, do my work and look after my family,” the barber said. “I will go and see the country first. Maybe one day I will get a chance to send my child there for education.”
The family already got their visas, and as part of the arrangement, they are scheduled to appear on ABC’s “Good Morning, America.”
Since they were reunited, Christian and Buddhist priests, relatives, people from villages surrounding Kalmunai and even an American family were among a sea of visitors who came to see Abilass.
Among the gifts he received was a Beanie Baby from 11-year-old Natascha Yogendra from Fairport, N.Y., who is in the region with her parents doing charitable work and visited Abilass a few hours before he departed for Colombo.
“I don’t use it anymore so I brought it for the baby,” Natascha said as she placed her gift by Abilass’ side and kissed his forehead.
More than just 'Baby 81'
Abilass also got a birth certificate, officially declaring his identity.
Jeyarajah said despite the many happy moments, he felt sadness when people refereed to Abilass as “Baby 81,” or the “tsunami child.”
“This is why I want to send the child away for education. Because this name is going to stick, and can have a big psychological effect on my son,” he said.
He also said that he has lodged a complaint with police fearing for Abilass’ safety, because people were speculating that thousands of dollars have been donated to the child.
“Elders in the family fear that something might happen to the child by people seeking to get the money they think we have,” Jeyarajah said.
“But, I have faith in God,” he added, “who has saved the life of my child and given him back to me.”