31 December 2003

Americans Respond to Iranian Tragedy with Outpouring of Support

Private citizens, charities, relief teams assist earthquake victims

By Armond Cagler
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- Official U.S. government aid is capturing the headlines but doesn't tell the full story of the response by American citizens to the earthquake that devastated the city of Bam in southeastern Iran December 26.

The assistance ranges from donations of children's winter clothing from across the country to the dispatch of specially-trained search and rescue units attached to municipal fire departments. The number of people killed by quake is thought to be somewhere between 28,000 and 40,000 while the number of injured and homeless is in the tens of thousands.

The outpouring of humanitarian assistance from private American citizens is in addition to the nearly 70 tons of medical, food, and purified water supplies the U.S. government is sending. In many cases, the U.S. government and private aid groups are working together to address problems that neither could handle alone.

For example, the Virginia Task Force One (VATF-1), an urban search and rescue task force attached to the U.S. state of Virginia's Fairfax County Fire Department, is delivering an estimated 21,000 kilograms of equipment and provisions, including food, water, and two cargo utility vehicles, logistical and material support from the U.S. government.

Another group of American relief workers heading to Iran consists of some members of the California Task Force Two, which is made up of 76 Los Angeles City firefighters, engineers, and other experts. The Virginia and California teams are the only two search and rescue teams in the United States to be certified by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

According to Dan Schmidt, a public affairs officer for the Fairfax County department, VATF-1 team was transported to Iran in a U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy aircraft.

He indicated that, of the 74 team-members originally mobilized to assist the Bam victims, 63 were ordered home following a change in mission designation from search and rescue to humanitarian relief. The remaining 11 members were ordered to continue to the earthquake-ravaged city to ferry the relief supplies and equipment while establishing a base of operations to be used by USAID and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA).

"The 11 members that continued to Bam include three doctors, rescue specialists, a logistician, communications specialists, and a task force leader," Schmidt said.

The VATF-1 group consists of both full-time professional members of the fire department, as well as volunteers, and specially trained civilians -- such as medical doctors, engineers, and canine handlers. The group has been responding to humanitarian crises worldwide since an earthquake ravaged Soviet Armenia in 1988.

Its members include both men and women who must attend arduous, specialized training -- oftentimes without compensation. When disasters strike, task force members suspend their personal lives for unspecified amounts of time and relocate at a moment's notice to global tragedies.

The high costs associated with VATF-1's worldwide deployments, including equipment, material and transportation, are assumed by the U.S. Government.

Another group assisting in the Bam humanitarian effort is Children of Persia, a non-profit, non-political charitable organization established in 1999 by Iranian-Americans living in the U.S. state of Maryland dedicated to providing a better lives for Iranian children.

Children of Persia has been organizing a humanitarian assistance campaign in the form of appeals for heaters, blankets, and children's winter clothing, and, according to its president, donations have also been pouring in from across the greater United States.

"There has been a tremendous response from people all over the United States who want to donate [clothing and blankets] to the people of Bam," said Dr. Mahnaz Motevalli, president of Children of Persia. "We have been receiving phone calls from Americans from as far away as Nebraska and even Europe who want to help."

The winter in Bam, located in Kerman province, is known to be particularly cold during winter months, especially during the nighttime, Motevalli said.

Once all the financial and material contributions have been collected, Children of Persia will package and ship the donations with the help of the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross is also working with other American groups to meet the needs of the victims. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization, has collected about $60,000 from the Iranian community in the United States and non-Iranian-Americans alike. It is receiving donations on-line and through local fundraising drives that have been organized in restaurants.

Also assisting in the effort are 54 doctors and medical experts from the International Medical Surgical Response Team, a Boston-based emergency response unit specially trained to set up field hospitals in disaster situations. The unit is the only one of its kind in the United States.

Iranian-American business organizations are also participating in the campaign. The Iranian American Technology Council, a professional organization consisting of Iranian entrepreneurs and executives, is asking people to donate through NIAC's website. In Houston, Texas, local leaders of the 60,000-strong Iranian-American community are busy securing contributions. Relief International, the Los Angeles-based humanitarian agency, raised over $26,000 on December 26th alone. It is collecting donations from Americans across the United States, much of it in the form of blankets and tents, and is on the ground in Bam distributing the aid.

Other relief agencies, such as Mercy Corps, are collecting donations and relief supplies as well. Mercy Corps has raised impressive amounts of blankets, space heaters, and tents but reports that access to drinking water and shelter in Bam remain top priorities.

According to the president of Mercy Corps, Dan O'Neil, the generosity of individual Americans is one of the reasons why the important work of Mercy Corps in Bam was able to happen so quickly.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, agrees.

"Mercy Corps swift mobilization of resources for the aid of the victims of the Bam earthquake is immensely appreciated by the Iranian-American community," Parsi said in a statement appearing on the agency's website. "Mercy Corps' reputation as a rapid response, grass-roots, nimble and cost-effective organization makes them the logical partner for [the Iranian] community in these difficult times."

U.S. government aid agencies meanwhile are stressing the importance of financial contributions instead of donations of goods. This is because financial assistance can allow relief groups to expedite the humanitarian assistance by buying needed much-need product locally rather than having to wait for international deliveries, which can be costly, labor-intensive, and unpredictable, the agencies say.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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