Tongan Americans Prepare to Provide Homeland with Long-Term Relief

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By Zachary FR Anderson, AsAmNews Contributor

In the aftermath of the January eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano and tsunami that devastated the Pacific Island kingdom of Tonga, Tongans in the US have already sent aid directly to their families back home.

“In the [Tongan] diaspora, there is a mad scramble to contribute whatever people need,” said ‘Alisi Tulua the project director of UCLA’s Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Data Policy Lab who was born and raised in the Kulumatu’a neighborhood of Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capitol city.

Tulua told AsAm News that she was in zoom meetings for work when she got a text message informing her of Hunga Tonga’s eruption. When the meeting ended, she spent the rest of the day scouring the internet for more information.

“I don’t think I got any sleep that night,” she said.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Anna Mahina, an organizer for San Francisco Tongans Rise Up,  had finished with her weekly check-in with siblings living in Tonga when she decided to turn off her phone for the rest of the day. She didn’t learn about the eruption, or the missed calls from relatives, until the next morning.

“I picked the wrong day to rest,” Mahina told AsAm News. “I should have answered those calls, at least just to hear my nieces and nephews.”

The eruption of Hunga Tonga and the tsunami waves–– with some recorded as high as 49 feet–– knocked out the communication lines between Tonga and the rest of the world, leaving both Mahina and Tulua uncertain about their loved ones.  

The horrors of these disasters were recorded by other posts on social media. Video from the Australian News outlet Network 10 News First showed the thirty-nine-mile-high column of ash and smoke created by the eruption, which created so much static electricity that it appeared that there was also lighting. Videos from Tonga showed tsunami waves carrying debris through the streets, destroying any structures left in its path.

Starved for information, Tongan Americans turned to information from relatives in Australia and New Zealand, which have more direct lines of contact with Tonga than the US does.

“Every piece of information that came out of [Australia and New Zealand], even if it was just one or two people, was being shared on Facebook,” said Tulua.

In one case, a women who worked for the Australian High Commissioner and was from the same village as Tulua’s father, provided her email so that people could send info about relatives for her to check on–– even offering to go directly to Tonga to do so.

A week after the eruption, communication lines were finally able to be restored and the impact became clearer. As of this publishing, five have been reported dead and 18 missing.

“There was a huge relief that we didn’t lose as many lives as you would anticipate during a natural disaster,” said Tulua.

As soon as Tongan Americans knew the status of their families, they immediately began sending direct aid to them–– a system many Tongans used before the eruption.

“So many of us are so connected to Tonga that we already know that our response is going to be sending money directly to family,” said Tulua. “It’s a normal practice for Tongans to send remittance back to the islands.”  

Aid items like water and clothing from the US would take weeks to reach Tonga, so relatives in Australia and New Zealand continued to act as intermediaries for Tongan Americans who sent money to them so that items could be purchased for the relief effort.

“Collectively, all of the Tongan organizations from LA, San Francisco and Sacramento are working towards organizing long-term and continuous relief efforts;” said Mahina, “something that can help rebuild Tonga one family at a time.”

Tongan Americas and other Pacific Islanders are still working to find ways to send items directly to Tonga. The East Palo Alto-based non-profit Anamatangi Polynesian Voices issued a press release on Jan. 31 stating their objective to fill a Boeing 787 with supplies that could be sent directly to Tonga.

Items such as non-perishable food, cleaning supplies and baby products are preferred with a detailed list available online.

“Our values are around celebrating community and relationships and celebrating our history,” the Anamatangi’s executive director Tiffany Uhilamoelangi-Hautau told AsAm News. “Tauhi vaha’a, building and maintaining relationships those are our value.”

Conventional means of providing aid are also being employed. On GoFundMe, Pita Taufatofua, who represented Tonga in the past three winter and summer Olympics, started a campaign to raise one million dollars for Tongan relief. As of this writing, almost 800 thousand dollars have been raised.

Taufatofua was not available to comment for AsAm News.

Anamatangi Polynesian Voices also started a GoFundMe campaign to raise 100 thousand dollars for relief.

These efforts, however, are rooted in much more than just rebuilding a country. For Tulua and Mahina especially, it is about preserving a sense of connectivity unique to being Tongan.

Mahina cited a Tongan proverb that states, “Koe ‘Otua mo Tonga ko hoku tofia,” which means, “God and Tonga are my inheritance.”

“That’s where my ancestors are from. This is where my culture and my heritage come from,” said Mahina, “I am nothing in America if it wasn’t for the history and culture I have [in Tonga].”  

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