The 10 volunteers sent by the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University to volunteer with the Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston spent all of Tuesday volunteering in the Reliant Complex. Some students served snacks between breakfast and dinner, as there isn't a hot lunch served to the evacuees. They were constantly busy replenishing food – Powerbars, cold drinks and chips. The students walked around to tables where people were sitting to eat, making friends with kids, and talking to adults.
A couple of the students who had brought their computers were trained in the new information management system that will enable evacuees to find their loved ones. They spent the morning distributing fliers with information on where and how to register and the afternoon actually registering people. Other students spent part of the day helping to distribute clothing and shoes to "shoppers" who would come to a large warehouse room for supplies.
The students have videotaped hours of footage of evacuees telling their stories and have photographed them extensively.
Below are short updates from the students themselves:
Things are rather hectic down here as you can imagine, but I wanted to fill you guys in on all the goings on. To put it succinctly: Amid the constant heartbreak among so many of the evacuees over the tragedy, not to mention latent anger at a variety of government officials, there's also a beautiful spirit of camaraderie here. People are hopeful because they have to be. It's all they've got left. The materials things don't matter so much as rebuilding what's inside. Some evacuees (volunteer coordinators tell us to call them "guests" and definitely not refugees, but I think evacuees is a fair way to describe them) are very open about their constant belief that their faith in God will sustain them in these trying times. Others are devastated, not knowing where their children or relatives are. I talked to one woman whose son went missing while she worked at Methodist hospital during the height of the flooding. She was recently reunited with her husband just yesterday. We're hoping to help find her a place, which doesn't seem as difficult as you may think. So many generous people from all over America have opened up their hearts and offered to host them for as long as it takes to get back on their feet. Just yesterday, a family of six I talked to that was sprawled out on the Astrodome floor accepted an offer to live in a condo in Arlington, Texas, about five hours away. They were initially reluctant to do it, since it relies so heavily on the trust of strangers, but it's truly the best decision they could ever make. And the man putting them up who I talked to was hoping to get the word out to the media there for others to follow suit. That's what is so amazing. We keep asking ourselves: Why does it take a tragedy for us to find our common humanity? It's a little sad, but hopefully this terrible experience will open the door for a greater acceptance of one another and the realization that we're all in this together. See you all soon. Signing off from Houston (or Evacu-World, as it's come to be known).
My mind, my heart, just about every part of my body is racing. We've been working all day, playing with kids, distributing food, doing innumerable little things that seem not to matter and yet somehow do. I want to write more, but I can't, I need to go back... I just can't sit anymore. Please thank everyone for their efforts back home, it will mean the world of difference when the initial rush of support ends... this is a long-term commitment and we need to be in this for the long haul. Thank you for letting us have this experience.
I don't know where to begin. The scenes in Houston are unbelievable. I have seen four sites: a convention center, the Reliant Center, the Reliant Arena and the Reliant Astrodome. They all have very different characters. The Astrodome is ominous, with thousands of people living on cots on the floor of the stadium. There are rows of cots from one end to the other, filling the floor. But people are living on cots behind the seats, too. There are people where ever they can go--they are welcomed and welcoming. I would like to give you all the details from my day, the logistics of setting up the convention center, the group of Sudanese young men who have been living in Houston for some years now who are volunteering at the Reliant Center, and the countless encounters with the sad and heroic stories coming out of New Orleans. But I am returning to the Astrodome very soon to do more work. We are currently trying to find a home for a family of "guests" and need to get back there to do it. There are so many themes I have seen these past two days, and the one I want to close with is one of community. Everyone here, be it volunteer or victim, feels part of a greater community, and rightfully so. Everyone is caring for everyone else. Each person is doing their part to make the best of the situation. We are living for one another. But more on that later, I've gotta get going. Much love from here in Houston--not just mine, but everyone who knows about us. They send their love too. As my sister said to me, I've gotta keep tikkun-ing the olam (repairing the world).
My experience in Houston has been phenomenal. I have observed so much compassion as people from all over the country pour out their resources to help the displaced--today even residents of the Astrodome were donning volunteer armbands and helping out with serving the crowds. I have also witnessed the needs of these people to reconcile their accounts of the storm and the evacuation to the stories being told on the news. I am simultaneously heartbroken and inspired by the things I have seen, and I am so, so grateful to Bronfman Center for all of this. My mind is cloudy now, and I will be more articulate later, but thank you.
Rachel Fertel and Seth Baer-Harsha:
So far, this Houston trip has been extremely powerful. For us, seeing members of our home community in such devastating circumstances is heartbreaking. We have participated in a slew of activities, from serving food, to moving boxes, and even personal shopping. People's firsthand accounts have been so moving; it is very difficult to portray their and our emotions in this one e-mail. When we hear about places we've been, or when topics native to New Orleans are raised, we feel a deeper connection with the victims (they are adamant about not being referred to as "refugees"), so much that it feels as if we were experiencing the storm with them. Though it is fantastic to see all of the support and aid, it is especially upsetting to see the vast number of people that need it most. These conflicting feelings are what makes our experience here so difficult to describe; there is simply too much to write. For now, all we can do is urge everyone to continue supporting the relief effort through the weeks to come by donating time and money to the cause. Our main concern is that as time wears on, the public will become more and more ambivalent about the tragedy, and the people that were affected by it. Thanks for your thoughts and support.