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Hoping and Helping

Anxious Immigrants Organize Efforts to Aid Victims of Tsunami

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Josh Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page B01

When he first heard about the deadly tsunami in his homeland, Rizwan Mowlana called Sri Lanka but couldn't get through. Finally, the phone at his Gaithersburg home started jingling yesterday with news of his relatives.

A cousin and his family, including a 3-month-old child, were playing on the beach. Gone.

Rizwan Mowlana, right, and his son Seyed gather items in the garage of their Gaithersburg home donated by the Sri Lankan community. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

An aunt and her children were on a train to the coast. Gone.

A cousin was at the Sunday market with her husband and son. Gone.

"Still the stories are coming in," said Mowlana, adding that he lost at least 30 relatives in the disaster. "It's horrible."

Across the Washington area, immigrants from several countries were plunged into grief and panic by the news of the tsunami. Many frantically dialed relatives and desperately watched television footage from the area.

Even though some did not know the fate of loved ones, they quickly began making plans to help the victims.

"My neighbors and everyone have been calling me, saying, 'What can we do?' " said Mowlana, who is executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations office in Maryland. "I said, 'Okay, we'll set up a 40-foot container, gather food and clothes and toys for the children. That's what they need to start the healing process.' "

Then he set up a temporary warehouse: his garage.

The tragedy touched a variety of immigrants in the Washington area: Sri Lankans, Thais, Indians, Indonesians. Although several of those communities are small, they threw themselves into relief efforts.

The Sri Lanka Association of Washington D.C. quickly set up an emergency fund to receive donations. By yesterday, it had sent $3,000 to an agency coordinating assistance in Sri Lanka, said the group's president, Nihal Goonewardene. The association, which has about 250 members, hopes to raise $20,000 to $25,000, he said.

"Every home connected to Sri Lanka has been affected," Goonewardene said.

Irawan Nugroho, who heads the local Indonesian Community Association, said the group decided to turn its New Year's Eve party at the Fortune restaurant in Falls Church into a fundraising event.

"We're going to change the tone, into a night for humanitarian relief," said Nugroho, an employee of Voice of America.

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