Local Indians, Sri Lankans Launch Drives, Fill Containers

by Molly Bloom, Ecember 30, 2004
"Nobody knows what happened," said Dr. Raja Rahula, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Christ Hospital in Jersey City and St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken, of his relatives who live in Sri Lanka. "I have no way of contacting them, no phones, no Internet, no nothing."

Rahula has several cousins in Jaffna, the arid flatlands on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka, and he has not heard from since before Sunday's tsunami that devastated the region. More than 80,000 people are known dead in the several countries hit by the killer waves.

But between frequent phone calls to other family members to ask for any news on his cousins, Rahula is working to gather supplies and donations for the tsunami's survivors. He hopes his cousins are among them.

Rahula is one of many people who live and work in Hudson County who are helping funnel relief efforts to the survivors.

Anil Vitarana is a member of the board of directors of the International Institute of New Jersey, a Jersey City-based organization that helps immigrants' transition to American society, and president of the United Arab Shipping Company of Cranford.

Along with other Sri Lankan community leaders, he is helping to gather supplies and donations at New Jersey Buddhist Vihara in Metuchen.

The vihara, or temple, has already gathered enough supplies to fill one shipping container, which is currently on its way to Sri Lanka, Vitarana said. He plans to ship two more next week.

"The response has been great, both from the expatriate Sri Lankan community as well as the American population," he said. "But much more is needed because the devastation is enormous."

Similar efforts are underway at the Govinda Sanskar Center on Newark Avenue in Jersey City, which serves about 1,000 Hindu families from throughout the area.

Raj Patel, president of the Govinda Sanskar Center and the Jersey City Asian Merchants Association, has already collected more than $16,000 worth of donations in just two days.

And with the bulk of the money coming from four individuals, Patel hopes to institute a matching-funds program where wealthier individuals would match amounts collected by the center on any given day.

"We are trying to get whatever we can get," Patel said. "It doesn't matter how much because whatever we get, it is still not enough."

Not all of the donations are coming in large denominations.

Larry Thomas, a 64-year-old retired programmer from Jersey City, walked into the temple yesterday afternoon to deliver a $100 check.

"It's such a terrible thing and so many people got killed," said Thomas, who came to the temple after reading about where to send donations in The Jersey Journal. "I just wanted to do something to help. I can't do much, but I can do a little."

While many members of the temple come from Northern India, which was not touched by the tsunamis, Patel said people have been flocking to the Govinda Sanskar Center since the weekend disaster.

On Saturday at 5 p.m., the temple will hold a prayer group for people of all religions who need help coping with the disaster.

"We are going to discuss this thing and pray," Patel said. "We want to let people know what happened and how catastrophic it is and how they can help."

For Patel and the other leaders at the temple, disaster relief is nothing new.

When a massive earthquake killed 19,000 people in Gujarat, India, in January 2001, the temple raised $45,000 in donations and helped send 15 to 20 doctors to tend to the injured.  People continue to donate money to the Gujarat quake victims. This past November, Patel took a check for $11,000, he said.

The tsunami relief drive is being organized much in the same way.

One-hundred percent of donations collected go directly to nongovernmental agencies helping with the relief, said Patel, noting that people should send money rather than clothes, food or diapers.

"Money is the main priority," Patel said. "Other parts of India can always send the other stuff."

Vitarana agreed that monetary donations are the best way to help Sri Lanka as well.

"Funds are most needed so that we can rebuild homes, toilet facilities, and so on so that we can prevent the spread of disease," he said. "Anything else is more than welcome, but it will take a while to get there."

Vinoo Majithia, vice president of the Jersey City Merchants Association and the owner of an Indian restaurant, has been approaching each and every customer about contributing money for relief efforts.

"I have customers with family over there but everyone is safe,' Majithia said. "Everyone is just really upset."

Rushabh Mehta, chairman of the Hudson County Planning Board, plans to expand the program so that people can eventually donate money to specific causes, such as rebuilding a hospital or school.

Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy will meet with members of the Garden State Indian Association and other community leaders today to assess how the city can help the tsunami survivors.

Patel said he will be among those meeting with Healy today, and "I might take a few dollars from the mayor's pocket," he said.

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Posted January 6, 2005