Overseas disasters spark compassion

BY ANGELICA AQUINO | Washington Heights, NY | November 30, 1999

The 1999 hurricane season, which officially ended today, has been a busy one. Five major hurricanes left dozens dead and tens

of thousands of homes damaged.

This year has also been one of international disasters, from the massive August earthquake in Turkey, followed by another

strong temblor in November, to a cyclone in India that left some 12 million people homeless.

For immigrant communities, portrayals of disaster-devastated communities can spark an especially strong sense of compassion.

Many ethnic community residents in the U.S. say that helping disaster survivors accentuates their sense of solidarity with a

shared desire to help.

But potential givers who see donations being collected on a street corner may well ask: who is collecting, where donations go,

and if the gifts are appropriate for those in need. It's especially easy to fall prey to a false plea for donations from someone who

speaks the same language, said Julio Araujo, a local business person who donated time and office space to relief organizations

responding to Hurricane Georges.

"It is a natural tendency to feel compassion for those back home. You know, we come from those lands -- the countryside

abroad, or the coastal town -- so that when we hear someone talk to us in our language, we identify. It is like having a piece of

our homeland in that person. And, we end up being taken," he said.

"In our communities the common theme is trust. So, we trust and then we find that some people are bad. However, there are

those who are good and are trying to help. The bottom line is trust," he added.

The Dominican immigrant community -- one of the fastest growing ethnic communities in New York City -- was mobilized last

September when the Dominican Republic was devastated by the powerful Hurricane Georges. As the death toll grew and the

extent of infrastructure damage became clear, response organizations, local communities, and individuals worldwide responded.

But not all of them had the best interests of disaster survivors -- or generous donors -- in mind. "Charlatans, self-proclaimed

leaders and activists ran amok in our communities, not only here in New York City but all over, including Miami," said Jose

Vargas, a cab driver who organized a caravan of more than 150 cabbies to take donations for hurricane survivors to John F.

Kennedy International Airport.

Vargas is a driver for First Class, a local cab company that also provides community service. "I know food and medicine and

other items reached the destination needed, because some of my compaņeros actually took time and flew to the affected areas

in the Dominican Republic to make sure the donations reached the hands and the mouths intended," explained Vargas.

Vargas said he saw people throughout New York and Florida donating bags of grains, rice, and clothing for hurricane survivors

-- and also saw people in charge of donation drives saying "how it would not hurt to take, here and there, a bag of rice or

pampers since, anyway, who was accounting for them?"

"Such cold and cruel comment made me so aware of how easily we can fall," said Vargas.

Elias Martinez, a hospital worker in Washington Heights, said that he was disturbed by the power-hungry people who collected

donations in order to make a name for themselves or gain political visibility. "There always seem to be self-proclaimed leaders

who take advantage of tragedies like disasters to promote themselves in the media and to gain political mileage," he said.

Antonia Martinez, another Washington Heights residents and mother of three, was among those who wanted to help --

immediately. "All of a sudden, parents, women and regular people like me were watching the news, and looking at women and

babies hungry and beaten down by the storm, the floods and the dreadful heat that followed Georges in the Dominican

Republic. I, along with my friends, ran to the local store and bought more than $100 in groceries to be delivered to a family.

Later on, we discovered that donor groups here and back in the Dominican Republic were being manipulated by political

agendas of established political parties," she said.

She was among thousands of donors who give clothing or food after a disaster -- well-intentioned gifts but often simply

unusable by disaster survivors. Disaster response experts report that, especially in overseas disasters, monetary donations --

provided they are given to an established and legitimate response organization -- are the best way to help survivors. With those

funds, organizations can purchase goods within a disaster-struck country -- boosting a weakened economy -- or can time the

bulk purchase of items to specifically target them to survivors' needs which can change daily.

A country's politics can also increase skepticism -- or super-charge compassion -- within immigrant communities. Dominican

communities in the U.S. attentively listened to reports of alleged looting by government officials in the Dominican Republic. At

the same time in Puerto Rico, response leaders reported that a divisive statehood vote there made it difficult for organizations to

unite in assisting survivors.

Some in immigrant neighborhoods have made it their goal to educate people about how to make appropriate donations and

how to identify legitimate response organizations and charities.

"As the next round of hurricanes, tropical storms, floods and all other forms of disasters are to hit, my biggest concern is to teach

people that there are established organizations with credibility and with real missions to help and assist people. Charlatans,

scoundrels and thieves will always try to profit from the misery of others. It is up to people of good will to understand that they

need to be stopped," said the Rev. Altagracia Castillo, of Evangelicos Unidos, a local preaching group that has staged a summer

gospel renewal throughout Washington Heights.

Donors who are unsure if a charity is legitimate can call their state's attorney general's office or the Better Business Bureau to see

if complaints have been registered. Local churches often find appropriate donations are being collected by well-established

national denominations or response organizations, all with sound track records of credibility.

Most response organizations recommend that donors work with national relief agencies or nonprofits that know how to target

donations specifically to survivors' needs.

"People need to be savvy and help those church-based organizations and programs that help everyone, no matter the faith and

political affiliation," added Emanuelle Nina, a Catholic community activist who collected donations for survivors from hurricanes

Mitch and Georges.

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