'Tremendous Desperation' Grips Peruvians in Washington

By N.C. Aizenman and Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 17, 2007

When news of the massive earthquake in Peru was broadcast on the television set at El Chalan Restaurant in downtown Washington on Wednesday night, the aftershock that rippled through the mostly Peruvian dinner crowd was almost as strong as the ones through Lima.

"It was this scene of just tremendous desperation," recalled Elsa Espinoza, 66, owner of the mom-and-pop establishment. "Everyone was on their cellphone, frantically trying to call their family members. I kept trying to reach my sister. But nobody could get through."

Within a few hours, many had succeeded. But yesterday, members of the area's Peruvian community were back on the phones, this time calling one another to discuss how to raise funds for the survivors.

"When something like this happens in your country and you are so far away, you feel so impotent," said Carlos Blanco, president of Hermandad del Senor de los Milagros, a church-affiliated group of more than 80 Washington area Peruvians that raises money for charitable causes back home. "All you want to do is go there and protect everyone."

Blanco and leaders of several similar community groups said they had called emergency meetings to set a course of action.

Vladimir Kocerha, press attache at the Peruvian Embassy, said that a fundraiser would be held in the area soon but that plans have not been finalized. In the meantime, he urged people to send cash as opposed to goods and to coordinate their relief efforts with the consulates.

"What we want to avoid is a lot of individual volunteerism that enables [scam artists] to take advantage of the circumstances," he said.

The Peruvian government has declared today a national day of mourning, and a Mass for the victims is scheduled for the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in the District on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

The magnitude 8.0 quake rippled streets and toppled buildings, leaving at least 437 dead and more than 800 injured, but casualty figures are expected to rise.

Espinoza's sister, a longtime Washington resident who retired and moved back to Lima less than two weeks ago, escaped unharmed. But Espinoza said that when she finally made contact, at about 9 p.m. Wednesday, "my sister couldn't stop crying."

"She told me, 'I've never seen trees and walls move like that. . . . I honestly thought it was the end of the world.' "

In recent years, governments dealing with similar natural disasters -- including several in Central America -- have asked the United States to grant temporary legal status to current illegal immigrants from their country until the crisis has abated.

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