Immigrants' Reaction To Tsunami Disaster

by Chaleampon Ritthichai, Gotham Gazette, January 2005

New York, USA -- When the phone rang at four in the morning in his apartment in Elmhurst Queens, Pichet Rasmee feared the worst. He had just learned from the news about the tsunami that hit across South Asia, including Phuket, Thailand, where his two aunts were on vacation at their family resort.

?I dreaded picking up the phone,? Rasmee said in Thai. ?Because I knew bad news was coming.? And it was. His brother was calling to tell him that the tidal wave had completely destroyed their family property in Phuket. Both of his aunts had drowned.

Unable to afford the trip for the funeral in Thailand, Rasmee gathered the day after New Year?s day with hundreds of Thais at the Dhammaram Buddhist Temple in Queens for a mass ceremony dedicated to tsunami victims.

?There?s not much I could do,? he said, ?except donate money.?

Rasmee is not alone. After the news of the disaster reached New York the day after Christmas, immigrants around the city desperately tried to contact their loved ones and started to give donations to help out their homelands.

?The donation box was so stuffed with dollar bills,? Rasmee said, ?I had to push my money in.?

According to Choltid Kempetch, a Thai Consulate staff member, the money collected at the Buddhist temple and other fundraising events will be managed by the Thai consulate and will be sent to Thailand?s hardest hit areas. The death toll in Thailand is now at 5,288.

Three other countries with the highest casualties are Indonesia (where the toll is at 94,200), Sri Lanka (30,240) and India (9,675), all of which have a sizeable population of their citizens living in New York. There are 68,300 legal immigrants from India in the city, 5,000 from Sri Lanka, 4,200 from Thailand and 2,800 from Indonesia, according to official figure.

Taniya Gunasekara, a native of Colombo, Sri Lanka, who lives in Spanish Harlem, was anxious when she could not reach her family.

?My sister was on vacation to see my mother in Colombo,? said Gunasekara. ?The line was busy. It took me about two and a half hours to reach them.?

Gunasekara?s mother and sister were safe but some of her relatives are among the causalities in Sri Lanka. Like many New Yorkers, she decided to help out by donating her money through a Buddhist temple.

At the Buddhist Vihara Temple on Staten Island, where a large number of Sri Lankan immigrants live, monks are collecting foods, clothes and donations and will ship them to the area most affected.

?People from around the community have come over since the morning, and they drop off goods,? temple member Radha Hettiarachchy told Voice of America. ? I think it brought this community closer together.?

In Queens , New York City?s commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Guillermo Linares, along with other city officials, met on January 6 with representatives of the Jackson Heights Merchants Association, a group of 220 South Asian merchants, to show their support and to express the city's ongoing commitment to helping tsunami-devastated nations.

?This is a tragedy and everyone wants to help,? said the association?s president Shiv Dass. The group has placed more than 200 donation boxes in their members?stores and will ask the city to donate some money to the tsunami relief fund.

Even though most Indians in Jackson Heights are from North India ? which was less affected by the disaster-- Dass expected the community to give support to the victims.

?We are going to raise about $40,000 and the money will go directly to the families,? he said. The association will send representative to deliver payments to relief agencies in South Asia.

Some are concerned that the relief fund will not reach the people who need it, especially in Aceh, Indonesia, where a conflict between Indonesian military and separatist rebels have been dragging on for decades. After the tsunami, both sides have agreed to a ceasefire.

?It is important that the international community not only send aid to Ache but to help monitor how things are distributed,? said Robert Jerski, a coordinator of the Indonesian Civil Society Coalition for the Victims of Earthquake and Tsunami. ?There is a report that the government has only recently allowed aid to enter?

The coalition also organized a demonstration by Achenese in front of the United Nations in early January to call attention on how relief funds are being distributed.

?I would recommend sending money to local NGOs [non-governmental organization] instead of sending it to major organizations,? said Aceh native Munawar Zanal who lost 20 of his extended family members. ?It will get there faster than by going through government bureaucracy.?