9/11 response still unfolding

BY RACHEL CLARK | NEW YORK CITY | September 11, 2002

"I feel like we need to learn not to not treat this like a natural disaster."

—Ann Mahoney

When it comes to 9/11, traditional disaster response isn't enough.

"I feel like we need to learn not to not treat this like a natural disaster," said Ann Mahoney, chair of the 9/11 Unmet Needs Table in New York. "It's not as localized. It's not as simple as dealing with houses that were lost. It's a loss of innocence for people...people are frightened...it's never as simple as just the lives that were lost in the building."

Last year's terrorist attacks took more than just lives. Hundreds of thousands of people -- most employed in the service industry -- lost their jobs after 9/11.

"Somewhere between 70,000 and 105,000 jobs were lost due to the attacks in New York City," said Benjamin Ross, disaster relief coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition. "Of those, roughly 56 percent of them were immigrants."

Thousands of bellhops, cab drivers, airline workers and wait staff found themselves unemployed or barely working in the weeks following 9/11.

"It was a really hard time," remembered Teresa Garcia Romero of Tepeyac, a Mexican group that has helped immigrants deal with the aftermath of Sept. 11. "In September, October, November and even December, the service industries were severely affected."

A year later, the immigrant community is still reeling.

Most of the nearly 900 people who came to Tepeyac for help are still coming. Romero said a lot of the immigrant population was employed by small businesses that couldn't afford to keep their employees. Plus, people who live just outside the Federal Emergency Management Agency's designated disaster zone weren't eligible for assistance.

"There were all of these people, they were working for five, ten years, and even paid their taxes," Romero said. "They were undocumented and couldn't collect financial assistance."

About half of the people her group helps worked in the hotel or restaurant industry, and many are in the United States without proper documentation. She said that church groups were especially helpful about accepting non-traditional documentation - like letters from neighbors and former supervisors -- from immigrants, even though they're only able to provide temporary relief.

"They're not recovering," she said. "There's a double problem: People who are undocumented citizens, those people especially, there's very little possibilities for them at this point."

Since many service-industry workers are from other countries, language presents a large barrier to their getting help.

"Some people slip through the cracks that way," Mahoney said. "There are some great resources out there, but unfortunately the people offering those resources don't always have the money to hire someone with a language capacity to handle clients."

In addition to losing their jobs, and therefore their livelihood, the psychological and health effects of the Sept. 11 attacks have been devastating for immigrants.

"There were a lot of people who were psychologically affected and also some people who were injured," Romero said. "We have around five cases of these types of incidents. We have a lady who needs surgery, and at the beginning she got Medicaid for emergency help, but she couldn't apply again. She needs surgery and we're trying to help her."

According to Michelle Archer, who works with the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, to an immigrant, the impact of losing a job is also devastating on immigrant families.

"We have a number of clients working in the service industry: taxi drivers, limo drivers, hotel workers... who have lost their jobs," she said. "In some cases, the family was barely making it, but they were getting by. They were working hard and did not have a lot of savings."

But since many of these families were surviving paycheck to paycheck and couldn't afford to build up a savings account, they had nothing to fall on in hard times.

"The job market here is bad," she said. "And if you're ESL it's much harder. A lot these service jobs are just gone. People are underemployed ... their hours are cut back because their employers can't afford to keep the same hours."

In response to the lack of employment, immigrants have tried to return home, Romero said.

"Especially the people who were working in the area (Ground Zero)," she said. "They were so traumatized by the events, a lot of people came and told us how they saw the flesh on dead people and they were so scared. A lot of people just went back home."

And of those people who remained in the United States, many are afraid to ask for help.

"A lot of these people are rightfully afraid," said Mahoney. "There have been people just being arrested based on the word that they're a terrorist -- which I personally think is the most un-American thing in the world."

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