Accessibility links

New York Immigrant Communities Rush Aid to Tsunami Victims

The disaster that has swept across southern Asia has spurred to action the hundreds-of-thousands of immigrants from the region who live in the United States.

Immigrants from the devastated region are desperate to contact relatives and send help. Sunita Frazier owns a grocery store catering to the Sri Lankan community on New York's Staten Island. The top selling items are international phone cards.

"Everybody is buying the phone card, and they want to know the news," she says. "Some people are missing. Because mostly Christmas time right? They are all going to visit each other. Mostly people are not at home."

But for many of the immigrants from southern Asia the telephone has only worsened their fears. Indonesian immigrant Sofiani Boegis calls home constantly. But no one answers. Now, her husband is planning to return to Indonesia to look for family members.

"I am so miserable," she says. "I cannot sleep at all. I keep calling every minute to them. Still we cannot get through yet."

An estimated 5,000 immigrants of Sri Lankan descent live on Staten Island, where the local Buddhist temple has become the center of activity. Temple member Radha Hettiarachchy was born in Sri Lanka and still has relatives there. She describes the scene at the temple, after news of the disaster reached the community.

"People from around the community have come over since the morning, and they dropped off goods," she says. "Now kids and adults are packing them in boxes. Right now, they are packing clothing and bedsheets."

Ms. Hettiarachchy thinks the effort has helped the community feel involved in the tragedy.

"They are really working hard. The community got together due to this catastrophe," she says.

When asked if they must be in shock?

"A lot of people are in shock, but I think it brought this community closer together as well," she replies.

The goods will travel by ship, and will not arrive for two weeks. Chief monk Bhante Kondanna says disaster victims cannot afford the delay, and encourages monetary donations.

"I feel that if you can send money, that would be easier, because money goes fast, and they can buy anything from a neighboring country, if they do not have it," he explains.

Members of Staten Island's Sri Lankan community have also been collecting money from commuters during rush hour. This volunteer says it is one way she can help.

"I am trying my very best to help them and all my fellow people," she explains. "This is the best way that we could help. This is what we could do from here."

New York's large Indian community lives mostly in Queens County where Dr. Uma Mersorker is coordinating the Hindu Temple Society's two-pronged relief effort. Some volunteers are shipping clothes, blankets and medications, while others collect money.

"As individuals and organizations, what we can do is raise as much money as possible, and give it to the appropriate authorities for purchase of whatever is needed to help the distressed and the people who have lost their loved ones and have no homes, no food, no water," Dr. Mersorker says.

In a neighborhood known a "Little India," the local merchants association is distributing collection boxes to every store. Merchant Shiv Dass says the collection boxes are a response to requests from local people who wanted to do something for the victims in India.

"We are going to raise maybe more than $40,000 and the money will directly go to the affected families," says Mr. Dass.

New Yorkers of all ethnic backgrounds are sending donations to international charities and relief groups. But representatives of many of the affected nations and the charitable groups say the best way to give is to write a check.

"It is wonderful that people want to give, and, in the spirit of giving, they go to their pantry, they go to their closet," explains Leslie Gottlieb, a local spokesperson for the Red Cross. "They look for what they can send. It is actually not the best thing to do at a time like this. What we really need is the ability to provide financial resources, buy water purification systems, more malaria medication, whatever the needs really are on the ground."

Experts say one of the main challenges now is to protect survivors by preventing the spread of disease and that means cash to buy water purification systems and medication.