B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
Indian students mobilize after earthquake tragedy
By David J. Craig
Sarju Shah had not yet seen the morning newspapers when she received her father's phone call at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, January 26. But probably nothing could have prepared her for what he said -- dozens of members of their extended family were either dead or buried alive beneath tons of rubble after an earthquake devastated India's western state of Gujarat the previous night.
After speaking with him, Shah, who visits her family in Gujarat regularly, tried to tough out her morning class, but couldn't pay attention. Thinking some food would calm her, she left class early to try to eat lunch at the Warren Towers cafeteria.
"While I was sitting there alone, another Indian girl came and sat next to me," says Shah. "She was someone I'd never spoken to much before. She told me that her uncle had died, and we both started crying and crying."
No time to think
For Shah and her parents, who live in Connecticut, the weekend revolved around frantic phone calls from friends in India, reporting the welfare of individual family members. Because phone lines were down in Gujarat, messages were relayed through Bombay by a complicated network of acquaintances. At first, news was incomplete and contradictory.
"We know now that my mother's brother and nearly half of his family are dead, and about 30 members of my cousin's husband's family died," says Shah. "I'd like to think they died instantly, but I know that's not what happened. On my uncle's side, they were buried. My parents won't tell me for how long."
The earthquake registered 7.7 on the Richter scale, killed more than 17,000, and left hundreds of thousands homeless.
Shah, who is a coordinator of BU's Hindu Students' Council, did not let her grief distract her from the important task she saw at hand. She and a handful of other Indian students gathered immediately to set up a special prayer session for Indian students on the evening of Friday, January 26, and met for several hours on Saturday to brainstorm about how to help earthquake victims. They decided to coordinate a fundraising drive targeting members of the BU community and corporate sponsors.
The Hindu Students' Council also began planning a fundraiser, a participatory Indian dance at BU that will take place soon after spring break and will involve a Hindu student group from Harvard. In addition, the council will donate to relief efforts all proceeds from their annual Hindu retreat to an Indian temple in New Hampshire on March 24 and 25. Both events are open to the general public; ticket prices have not yet been determined.
BU's India Club at the same time was busy planning its own fundraising drive, anchored by a talent show that will feature some 80 performers, mostly Indian students, at Morse Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 22. Tickets are $5 and are on sale at the GSU Link from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday until February 22.
"Putting together events like this on such short notice isn't easy," says Mayank Patel (SAR'01), president of the India Club. "We've run into problems along the way, but we've gotten a lot of help from volunteers at BU, and we've been very efficient."
One goal of the fundraisers is to bring together Indian students in Boston to work on the relief effort, as many of them are not involved in the city's larger Indian community. "Students from Northeastern and BC are participating in our talent show," says Patel, "and through an Indian student organization at MIT we're sending out an e-mail about our fundraising efforts to members of all student organizations at area colleges."
Many students typically not active in Indian student group activities have volunteered to help fundraise and have come to prayer gatherings to offer moral support, Shah says.
Us versus the earthquake
The Hindu Students' Council and the India Club together have raised nearly $5,000, an amount they hope to at least triple in the upcoming weeks. They are contributing all donations to the Massachusetts Chapter of the International Red Cross, coordinators say, because the Red Cross is helping earthquake victims in Pakistan as well.
According to Shah, in addition to bringing Indian students together, the earthquake also has strengthened individuals' sense of heritage. There are about 800 students of Indian ancestry at BU, Patel says, about one-third of whom stem from the area hit by the earthquake.
"A lot people felt very upset that God could do something like this, but it also brought us closer to each other and to our families," says Shah. "It was like the community versus the earthquake.
"In college, it's easy to be in a bubble, and when something like this happens in another country it usually doesn't seem to affect most students," she continues. "But this really hit home, obviously. I'm now e-mailing all the family and friends that I have in India."
Redeeming aspects of the tragedy are not easily apparent to all students, however.
Shilpa Shah (SMG'04) (not related to Sarju) lost a 70-year-old uncle in the quake. Last December, she stayed in the home where he and 13 other people died, in the city of Ahmedabad. Shah describes her uncle as a "happy-go-lucky guy" who loved to take her and her cousins out to eat.
"He was the oldest of nine brothers and sisters, and their father figure," she says. "My father is the only one of them who lives in the United States, and he's returned to try to sort things out. A lot of them don't have places to live. I've kind of focused on my school work to keep my mind off of it."
Checks made out to the Boston University Hindu Students' Council can be mailed to the group at 775 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215. Checks to the Boston University India Club can be mailed to Mayank Patel, 41 Ashford St., Unit #5, Allston, MA 02134. For more information about the groups, visit firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Large gifts, which are tax-deductible, should be sent to the BU Student Activities Office at 775 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA 02215, made out to Boston University, and contain a note that they are for the Earthquake Relief Fund. In addition, a relief fund has been organized by the South Asian American Law Students Organization; donations will be accepted at the LAW Café, lower level, through Friday, February 16. A clothing drive, organized by SMG's Undergraduate Student Government, will accept drop-offs at the SMG student government office at 595 Commonwealth Ave. until Monday, February 22.