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U.S. Grass-Roots Efforts

South Asians Find Common Cause in Aid Drives

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A18

MOUNTAIN LAKES, N.J. -- The day after the tsunami barreled across Indian Ocean shores, Anushka Nadarajah felt a wave of emotion wash over her. "I saw a video of a young girl who had lost her parents," the 15-year-old said. "She was asking them to come back and find her. But they were probably never coming back."

Nadarajah, the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants, put herself in that girl's place. And as the toll of confirmed dead rose into the tens of thousands, she sat in her spacious house by a lake here and poured her grief into an open letter to the community.

Anushka Nadarajah, 15, wrote a letter to help tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, her parents' homeland. Her sister Ayesha, 12, is collecting clothes and toys. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

"My heart breaks for the people who have lost their families and the little that they had," the letter read. "I am sure that many of you reading this letter are looking for ways that you can directly help the people affected by the tsunami."

As of Friday she had collected more than $30,000 for charities suggested by her parents. And she was only one of hundreds of South Asians and Southeast Asians in the United States raising money and materials to help tsunami victims, mostly in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

Activists for the groups said South Asians are crossing deep cultural fissures to collect and donate. Hindus and Muslims who war in Pakistan and India are coming together, as are members of the Tamil and Sinhalese groups of Sri Lanka, said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a Columbia University journalism professor and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association, which has loosely monitored tsunami relief efforts among South Asians.

"One of the most heartwarming things to emerge from this tragedy is how the community has come together to help with relief efforts," Sreenivasan said. "Almost immediately, various regional, religious and ethnic groups started fundraising and reaching out. South Asians are usually so compartmentalized that they don't pay attention to each other. That changed this time."

The fundraising of South Asians -- collectively a group that refers to its members as desi (THEY-see), "from my country" in Hindi -- comes at a crucial time, as the tsunami's official death toll surpasses 150,000 and as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for $1 billion in aid.

Tanya Girdhar, who works with the Washington chapter of TiE, a networking group for tech industry executives that has raised $130,000 for tsunami relief, said South Asians in the United States can afford to give.

"Everyone wants to help," she said. "We e-mailed friends who e-mailed friends. People called up. Sent checks. It's beyond our expectations."

"I think there's also that little guilt feeling," she said. "You feel guilty being wealthy. You see poor people. You see beggars. When you come here, you do so much better. They feel obligated to do something for the country."

Elsewhere in the Washington area, dozens of groups, including the National Federation of Indian American Associations of Annandale, the Association of Indian Muslims of America in Silver Spring and Asia Relief Inc. of Gaithersburg, have collected tens of thousands of dollars in cash, clothing and supplies to send to South Asia.

In Minneapolis, young Sri Lankan members of the artists' group Diaspora Flow are planning a concert to raise money for the relief effort. In Chicago, dozens of South Asian associations, such as the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, have surpassed their goal of $30,000 each and are aiming for $100,000.

Tsunami relief benefits are being planned for this month and next in New York. Tanya Selvaratnam is organizing Artists for Tsunami Relief. "If I can raise $50,000, I'll be happy," said Selvaratnam, who is seeking a sponsor to match what she raises.

The Indo-American Arts Council and Christie's auction house have scheduled a Feb. 4 fundraiser featuring Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and others. Organizer Aroon Shivdasani said he hopes to raise a half-million dollars.

The full scope of the fundraising and donations by South Asians is difficult to determine. According to the census, about 2 million people from countries directly affected by the tsunami live in the United States, and more than half are from India. Yet no individual or group is tracking activity by South Asians on behalf of the victims, said Robinder Sachdev, a founding member and director of the U.S.-India Political Action Committee.

"Indian and other communities are responsive, and that response is not coordinated," Sachdev said in an e-mail from India, where he is working to help tsunami victims. "I think this is more due to the knee-jerk reaction of each group. If you hear of a tragedy, your immediate reaction is to talk to the ones in your close circle. . . . It is this ad hoc, knee-jerk reaction that I'm targeting for reform, by proposing that there be a framework for disaster relief which should be triggered every time a disaster occurs."

Coordination is only one concern, said Selvaratnam, a Sri Lankan in New York. She also had pressing concerns over whether the government, or some private groups, could disburse donated money properly. "There are corrupt organizations that are seizing on this disaster to raise money for themselves," she said.

Selvaratnam turned to the Web site of the World Health Organization for suggestions on where to send money. She decided on Doctors Without Borders and AmeriCares. Azad Oommen, program director of the America India Foundation, which says it raised $150,000 in a week, said his group is relying on contacts in India.

"We have an office in India that's staffed by development experts," Oommen said. "They are on the ground assessing what the needs are. The other thing we're focused on is the long-term rehabilitation of these communities."

In New Jersey, Nadarajah initially did not know how to react. "I was just shocked. I couldn't believe the images," she said. Her relatives in Sri Lanka were unharmed, but that was little consolation, given the scope of the devastation.

She started writing her letter on Dec. 29, three days after the tsunami struck. After she finished, two days later, members of the community started copying it and sending it to friends. She also took the letter with her when she returned from winter break to Mountain Lakes High School, where she is a member of the student government, and to the school board.

"We're talking to the community services director at my school," she said. "We're going to get the whole school district involved." Donations will be sent to the Zonta Club of Colombo, Sri Lanka, which is helping to build houses, and the Sri Lanka Medical Association of North America, a nonprofit organization that is buying antibiotics for the sick.

"In four or five days, we had raised $18,000," she said. Within a week, she said, they had $7,000 more.

Now the high school swimmer sounds more like an activist.

"My goal now is actually $100,000 or more," she said. "Seeing what I've seen on television has made me realize how much we have and how much we can give to these people. I just want to continue raising money. I don't want people to forget about people after the cameras have gone away."

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