At the restaurant Ricarepa in the District's Cardozo-Shaw neighborhood, chef Fernando Guillen has been telling customers about an uncle who remains missing and a cousin who lost a shop to the floods in Venezuela. In Annandale, at a grocery known as El Mercado Dos, the Carrero family has collected more than 300 pounds of clothing for victims of the disaster unfolding in their homeland.
And at La Mega radio station in Silver Spring, morning host Rosanna Carleo takes call after call from anxious listeners wondering how they can help. "It's very difficult," said Carleo, who emigrated from Venezuela four years ago. "But we're working hard to get the people over there what they need. It's important they know there are people here who will support them."
Just days before Christmas, there is little holiday cheer in the small, close-knit community of perhaps 2,000 Venezuelans living in the Washington area. Instead, there is worry and grief and a desperate desire to do something, anything, to help the friends and relatives in Venezuela survive the greatest natural disaster to hit that nation in 50 years.
Families that trace their roots to Venezuela have spent the past few days collecting food, clothing and medicine to be shipped to the disaster areas. They have been trying to get in touch with loved ones, sometimes seeking comfort in third-hand reports from friends or neighbors. They follow the news from Caracas on Spanish TV stations and the Internet, hoping to spot relatives alive and safe.
Guillen, 43, who opened the District's only Venezuelan restaurant nine months ago, said his mother has been on the phone day and night trying to reach his uncle--with no luck. Other relatives have taken refuge in a hotel after fleeing their homes.
Chatting with his customers, many of them from Venezuela, Guillen hears variations on the tragedy. "I'm trying not to cry, but my eyes begin to water," he said. "Even though I'm here, I think about the people over there."
The mood is much the same at Annandale's El Mercado Dos.
"There was a lady who came in yesterday, and she said her town doesn't exist anymore. It's just a lump of mud. She thinks her family is okay, but she was very worried," said Henry Carrero, 27, whose father purchased the store two years ago. "I don't think there's a family around here that has not been affected."
Carrero, who has uncles and aunts in the disaster region, said he rushes home after work to log on through the Internet to a television station in Venezuela. His mother delivered a van full of clothing to the Venezuelan Embassy yesterday, and the family is trying to collect medicine. Embassy officials said they have already received 80 boxes of goods.
Jose Garcia, 33, the Venezuelan-born executive director of the Life Skills Center in Mount Pleasant, a bilingual program for mentally retarded adults, said he couldn't reach his parents in Caracas for two days--but spotted their partially submerged apartment building on television. When he got through to them Friday, he learned that they had escaped to higher ground and that "the city has started to smell because of all the bodies buried in the mud."
"You feel bad, and you just don't know what to do. You don't know if you should get your luggage and go down there or keep trying to help here," Garcia said. "There's going to be a point I have to go back. After 12 years in this country, I've got to have some experience that can help."
Migdalia Martinez Marcus, 36, an artist in Silver Spring who went to Costco to buy items to bring to the embassy, said her old neighborhood in Caracas is gone but all her relatives appear to be safe. One sister-in-law, seven months pregnant, was rescued by helicopter.
"I think the bad part is going to come when the list of the missing comes out and I start recognizing names," she said. "I believe that will be the worst--learning which of our friends have died."
Aid for Venezuela
The following aid agencies are accepting contributions for assistance to victims of the flooding in Venezuela:
American Jewish World Service
Venezuela Flood Relief
989 Avenue of the Americas, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018
Brother's Brother Foundation
1501 Reedsdale Street,
Pittsburgh, PA 15233-2341
Food for the Hungry
7729 East Greenway Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85260
Lutheran World Relief
P.O. Box 17061
Baltimore, MD 21298-9832
Presiding Bishop's Fund
for World Relief
815 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10017-4594
United States Committee
333 East 38th Street
New York, NY 10016
United Way International
701 North Fairfax Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-2045
In addition, the Venezuelan Embassy is accepting clothes, medicine and other goods. Donations can be dropped off at the embassy, 1099 30th St. NW, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. For a list of items being requested, people can call (202) 342-2214 or visit the embassy's web site, www.embavenez-us.org.
Washington-area residents can also bring items to the District's Office of Latino Affairs in the Reeves Center at 14th and U streets NW. The Life Skills Center at 3166 Mount Pleasant Street NW also is accepting donations and will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. at least through Christmas Eve.
CAPTION: Claudia Quintero, 10, left, helps her mother, Deisy Quintero, of Falls Church, fold clothing delivered to the Venezuelan Embassy as part of the relief effort.