Special Report


“> This Time They’re Ready for the Wave

KANCHIPURAM DISTRICT, INDIA — The bright, clear morning of Dec. 26, 2004, would forever change S. Desingu’s life.

The first monster wave rose from the Sea of Bengal without warning at 8 a.m. — silently, massively.

For the Indian fishermen at sea, the startling energy pulse bumped harmlessly under their boats, passing in an instant. The wave started to rise ominously in the shallows.

Onshore, the 36-year-old Desingu glanced up to see a 30-foot liquid wall surging in as tall as the tops of the soaring coconut palms. The fishing craft along the shore rolled end over end, tossed as easily as playthings in a bathtub.

Mesmerized, Desingu, whose name means fisherman, actually moved in closer.

“Then I was trapped,” he recalled in his native Tamil, through a translator. “The water was over my head.”

His wife, who came looking for him, also was caught in the flood. So was her aunt.

Desingu and other villagers didn’t even know a word to call this calamity. Only later would he hear of “tsunami.”

In India the roiling water took an estimated 18,000 lives — more than nine times the number lost in Hurricane Katrina. About three-quarters of the casualties were women and children. Although many people are more aware of the disaster’s astronomical deathtoll in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the statistics here in India are staggering: some 157,000 homes destroyed; 640,000 displaced.

Along all the southern Asian coastlines, more than 220,000 souls were swept to their deaths, according to a U.N. tally. Some 1.8 million were left homeless or became refugees.

As for Desingu, the tsunami first brought stunning loss and then ongoing struggle. But a glimmer of opportunity also materialized. For this poor but enterprising fisherman was already running a nonprofit that hired schoolteachers and organized health clinics and after-school programs. In the wake of the tsunami, money and aid began pouring in for Desingu’s nonprofit and his village. Suddenly, this 10th-generation fisherman had the chance to become the catalyst for permanent change in southeast India’s deprived and hard-pressed fishing villages.

“Now, all of a sudden, I can do more than I had planned to do,” said Desingu, the founder and director of Society for Education and Action (SEA).

And he would join forces to battle inadequate schools, poor health care, gender discrimination and government bureaucracy with people he knew little about — people called Jews.

In the days after the tsunami hit, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a relatively small, New York City-based nonprofit, began to work with Desingu and other regional leaders who run nongovernmental organizations or NGOs as they are commonly called. The upward shift in possibilities for AJWS paralleled that of the hard-working fisherman. Before the tsunami, the Jewish aid group had an annual budget of $11.2 million for projects spanning the developing world — a pinprick compared to other groups that do similar work — and small even when compared to other Jewish groups that focus on helping Jews and Israel. But relief appeals for the tsunami brought in $11 million, doubling the nonprofit’s funds.

Other aid groups have had similar experiences as a second flood — of charitable assistance — poured into India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. Private U.S. sources have given $1.775 billion to a loose coalition of 62 nonprofits (which includes AJWS and the American Joint Distribution Committee, another Jewish nonprofit that handled an influx of $18.5 million in tsunami-related donations).

Like Desingu, the American Jewish World Service saw an opening to effect change well beyond emergency relief or short-term recovery. The AJWS wanted to take on the pre-tsunami landscape of poverty and deprivation. Just as surely as the tsunami altered so much for the worse, the AJWS, working with local leaders like Desingu, wanted to make permanent changes for the good. Although it granted immediate aid where most needed, the organization also created a long-term development plan to spread out its windfall resources over five years.

“A lot of donors come and go after an emergency,” said Kate Kroeger, senior program officer for AJWS. “The real work kicks in three to four years after a disaster, when a community is stabilized. If donors pull out before that, they’ll miss out on three-quarters of the benefit.”

The American Jewish World Service already was working in India when the tsunami hit. But the storm thrust both AJWS and Desingu suddenly — and willingly — onto a larger stage, where their efforts can accomplish vastly more.

Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site:
” target=”_blank”>http://www.ajws.org/
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site: http://www.churchworldservice.org/
Regional office: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.imcworldwide.org/
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site: ” target=”_blank”>http://www.mercycorps.org/
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355


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