Immigrants set aside differences to help

Tsunami aid has brought together sometimes-bickering groups - such as Indo-Americans in the Bay Area.

Mani Manivannan makes a quick glance around the room before he lowers his voice. On this evening in particular, when Indians from all over Silicon Valley have come to this Hindu temple to offer prayers and donations for the victims of last month's tsunami, his comment is inappropriate - and he knows it.

"On any other occasion, if you brought this many people together, we would be fighting with each other over any small thing," he concedes.

But tonight, he straightens with a smile. Here are Punjabis and Gujaratis, Tamils and Bengalis, and the only sound is the high waver of traditional Indian singing nearby. So often divided by ties to two dozen states, more than 10 languages, and a kaleidoscope of faiths, Indian immigrants are finding unity in a time of loss.

Like Sri Lankans, they have held vigils and created websites. Like Indonesians, they have turned empty garages into donation centers and established charities. Yet at least on this side of the Pacific, one of the greatest successes of the relief effort so far is in simply bringing together immigrant communities that at times dwell on the differences that divide instead of the cultural heritage that binds.

"The Indo-American community is not a monolith - everybody maintains their local allegiances," says Sam Rao, an activist in the Bay Area Indian community. "But this has been an occasion for coming together."

Multiple misunderstandings

Indo-Americans might be one of the wealthiest immigrant groups in the United States, sharing a strong work ethic and a trust in the value of education, but whenever the community comes together, there is ample opportunity for misunderstanding - from how to pray to which language to speak.

Here in the Bay Area, community leadership is famously splintered among two to three businessmen who hold competing India Independence Day festivals.

The deeper differences, however, are rooted in the history of one of the world's most ancient cultures. Mr. Manivannan notes that residents of the neighboring states hit hardest by the tsunami speak two languages transcribed into scripts so different that neither can comprehend the other. In California, too, his ways as a native of Tamil Nadu set him apart from others at the Sunnyvale Temple.

When colleagues recently began a business meeting in Hindi, Manivannan responded with the only Hindi phrase in his repertoire: I don't know Hindi. "There's always this tension," he says.

Since the tsunami washed ashore in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh nearly a month ago, though, that tension has largely vanished. Even before the tsunami, there was a broader increase in cultural awareness, both here and back in India - but the trend has been amplified by the relief effort.

For instance, when residents in Gujarat collected Gujarati clothes and food to ship to Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, authorities refused to send it. Tamil people needed clothes and assistance that reflected their culture. "They're not beggars," says Manivannan. "They're people in distress, and you give them the clothes they want to wear."

After all, the people of Gujarat understood what it means to be in distress. In 2001, when a massive earthquake struck northwest India, the roles were reversed, with Tamil Nadu and the rest of India coming to Gujarat's aid.

In a country where sacred texts speak of kingdoms falling into the sea - a country of monsoons, cyclones, earthquakes, and floods - the impact of natural disasters is universally understood. "When you read about this, it is like the Ramayana [a Hindu scripture]," says Manivannan. "It touches something deeper."

Narendra Pathak, a native of Gujarat, is happy to return the kindness of 2001. The treasurer of the Charitable Care Foundation says his organization has one motto: "Total community involvement."

"For this sort of thing we have to get together," he adds.

In all, 31 additional groups are listed as supporting organizations for the Sunnyvale fundraiser - ranging from a Sikh temple to the Silicon Andhra Association. "We made a special effort to include the entire Indian community," says Raj Bhanot, one of the organizers.

In this low-slung building that serves as a community center, shrine, kitchen, and warehouse, the Charitable Care Foundation has set up a table in the back of the spare auditorium to secure money to help rebuild India. "We're about the long-term recovery process: building schools, hospitals, houses," says Mr. Pathak.

Other unifying efforts

Across the US, immigrants from other countries devastated by the tsunami have responded as well. New Year's Eve parties turned into fundraisers like this one, and families have offered to adopt children orphaned by the waves. One group of Sri Lankan families in Minnesota has pledged to build 25 new homes, a medical clinic, a school, and an orphanage in a town that was destroyed.

"Any temple you go to will be no different," says Yagnesh Pathak of the relief group Sewa International.

Still, divides linger beneath the surface. Many of the supporting organizations for the Sunnyvale fundraiser chose not to come to the event or set up a booth. And an international watchdog group, the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, alleges that several of the supporting organizations have connections to Indian hate groups.

But the event is at least an attempt to reach out, and Manivannan says that is a step in the right direction. "We would all disagree with each other 90 percent of the time," he says. "But in light of what these people have been going through, it makes what we argue about seem insignificant."

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