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Humera Afridi: Tell Them Our Stories

November 25, 2013

On storytelling and survival in post-disaster landscapes, from Tacloban City to Staten Island.

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Image from Flickr via International Labour Organization - ILO PHOTOS

By Humera Afridi

As heart-wrenching appeals from survivors of Typhoon Haiyan rupture the scrim of our days—as do the images of uprooted coconut orchards, decomposing bodies and incomprehensible destruction—I can’t help but think of the silence that will, in all likelihood, all too soon, cloak the tragedy and the Philippines’ long struggle towards recovery.

The barrage of disaster news reminds those who’ve survived a cataclysm that media attention brings with it a tincture of healing. When plight is public, loss and commiseration become communal. In October 2005, after a massive earthquake struck Pakistan, I joined the relief efforts of a local NGO in the country’s mountainous north. Traveling to rural villages and isolated communities at 6000 to 8000 feet above sea level—negotiating treacherous terrain; waiting out landslides—we anticipated that survivors would be desperate with grief, cold and hunger. For many, we were their first point of contact with the “world outside”—that living-breathing-alternate-reality that had mysteriously been spared the tremendous tragedy.

They entrusted us—distributors of blankets and bags of flour, whose homes were far away and intact—with their urgent testimonials, sacred as confessions.

But, as we coordinated medical help and filled out needs assessment forms, I sensed, too, a thirst of a different kind. It was pervasive and voiced itself in the speech of survivors. Pressing a hand into ours, leaning into the trunk of a plane tree, or taking us by the elbow to the spot on the terrace where a wife had been nursing a firstborn when the roof collapsed over them, they narrated stories of unfathomable tragedy—of dismembered children, of whole families decimated, of livestock seemingly swallowed up into the earth’s core, or homes that had toppled off a mountain facade.

Drawing out the breath, as if savoring the length and time of those slowly spoken sentences, survivors brought back to life tragically lost loved ones. With shell-shocked intensity, delirious or distant expressions, they entrusted us— distributors of blankets and bags of flour, whose homes were far away and intact—with their urgent testimonials, sacred as confessions, to take back out to the world: As we climbed into our trucks they urged: Nobody knows what has happened to us. Please, tell them. We are forgotten.

I returned home to New York six months later, wracked with persistent guilt. I’d written up some of the stories for the NGO’s in-house reports, a few to be referenced in grant proposals, but the desperate reality of rural survivors remained shadowy at best, forgotten by all but the NGOs that served them. Through the bitter winter, the arrival of spring, and into summer, for many the new quake-resistant houses that the Pakistani government had promised were as intangible as a dream. Aid flooded into the country, only to seemingly disappear down the labyrinthine corridors of bureaucracy. As I assimilated back to life in fast-paced, first world, avant-garde Manhattan, I was haunted by the fact that I couldn’t, at times, conjure the faces of the people I’d left behind, just their disembodied voices. My most vivid memory was of the macabre landscape—jagged fissures on the earth’s surface calling to mind silent screams.

Here, in plain sight, amongst us are hidden, unrecognized populations that, one year later, are still displaced and struggling to survive.

As Typhoon Haiyan whipped through Tacloban City on the heels of Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary—when New York City’s own wounds have yet to heal, and the road to recovery is still long and arduous for many invisible pockets of the metropolis—I was reminded, yet again, of that urgent need to be known, for struggle to be articulated. Hurricane Sandy survivors attest to the fact that when the stream of images, sound bytes and news flashes eventually faded, shock and trauma were subsequently compounded by the hollow ring of anonymity, just as the herculean task of rebuilding a former life was beginning. A life that for many still remains elusive.

This fall, on behalf of The New York Women’s Foundation, I met with fifteen community-based organizations in New York City whose critical work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy helped people who are unknown to the mainstream, and whom city and government agencies did not appear to have accounted for in their disaster relief plans. As I spoke to people who’d just barely survived the ravages of the hurricane, there were the familiar echoes—Where will you tell our story? Will it be on TV? We are New Yorkers, too, but New York has forgotten us, said harrowed residents of Coney Island, Chinatown and the Lower East Side, who were among the 50,000 New Yorkers rendered homeless in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The night Sandy tore through New York, homebound, isolated HIV/AIDS patients on ventilators clung to the hope of being discovered in Coney Island; undocumented families huddled in substandard illegal basement apartments in Staten Island, and LGBT homeless youth clustered by the piers in Lower Manhattan, without recourse to safe haven. The non profit organizations who are committed to serving these vulnerable populations surmise that a number of people simply drowned, swept away by the storm surge, forever forgotten. “When the water came, we have no idea who it took away. These are the invisible citizens of the city,” said Sassafras Lowery of The Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), an organization that offers crisis intervention and a hot meal program to LGBT youth. Several of HMI’s members—who habitually sleep by the piers, and in the city’s parks and subways—have not been seen again since Hurricane Sandy.

Conversations with organizations and survivors alike unveiled an insidious economy at work in this densely packed, intimate city. In clamorous, cluttered, affluent New York—a city of stories vying for attention—there are lives wrapped in precarious silence, buried in palimpsest-like layers of invisibility. Here, in plain sight, amongst us are hidden, unrecognized populations that, one year later, are still displaced and struggling to survive.

Typhoon Haiyan, Hurricane Sandy and countless other disasters in the world share this in common: for those subsisting on the margins of society, even in a first world city, a natural disaster unhinges the already slim grasp on a life eked out in anonymity and aching poverty.

Unlike Pakistan’s hard-to-access mountains, the neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Sandy were just a train or a ferry ride from Manhattan. When I visited the mobile health unit of Community Health Action of Staten Island, in the Midland Beach neighborhood, a depressed survivor confessed to me, “I was suicidal. My life went from the American Dream to upside down and inside out.” When our conversation ended, he thanked me: “Today’s a good day. There’s healing in telling my story.”

Typhoon Haiyan, Hurricane Sandy and countless other disasters in the world share this in common: for those subsisting on the margins of society, even in a first world city, a natural disaster unhinges the already slim grasp on a life eked out in anonymity and aching poverty. Ever more rudderless and desperate, the invisible aspire to membership in the tribe of the boldly living, relying on community-based organizations, if they exist in their area, to bring their struggles to light. Survivors want—no, need, deserve—their losses to be articulated and etched into public memory. Nothing will bring back loved ones swallowed by the earth’s rupture or a storm surge. But the desire to have tragedy communally acknowledged, that is something fundamental—a primal tactic of endurance that fuels the will to persevere.

And that, to me, is the crux of the issue: stories of struggle and survival require expression for their own sake, apart from serving to exemplify the work of aid and relief programs. Executive Director of Grand Street Settlement, Margarita Rosa, recalled the first day after the storm when a senior caregiver arrived with a bucket, in search of water, to take back up to her elderly employer’s apartment. But there was no water to be had, and Rosa had to turn her away. “To be a helper and not be able to help was a terrible thing,” she said, teary-eyed. I thought of Rosa’s words as I began to prepare my report, once again pummeled by guilt, knowing that the many individual stories I’d heard would need to be collapsed into a synecdoche, that some would be highlighted over others, while yet others would serve to fill in statistics.

It isn’t surprising that natural disasters and cataclysms—what with their mystifying fury and destruction—invoke the ancient epics. Transcribing my conversations, I listened once again to the voices filled with yearning emotion, and my mind, of its own volition, traced back to that prophetic phrase: In the beginning was the word. The word: a culmination of the union of breath and vibration. Words manifest an articulate expression of life itself.

The poet Edward Hirsch says, “We need the sound of our words to delineate the state of our beings.” Indeed, in speaking their stories, the formerly invisible gain contour, become fleshly. The living voice molds absence and loss into form. It celebrates stoicism and fortitude. When Tacloban City fades from our television screens, let’s remind ourselves to remember; to convey remembrance, and to acknowledge the immense need to be remembered when the world is turned in on itself, and life is, at best, a faint, wraithlike semblance.

***

How to Help:
Community-based organizations have built enduring relationships of trust with marginal and hard to reach populations and have access to invisible pockets of society. Their outreach has a direct and immediate impact. Damayan Migrant Workers Association, in New York, and the Pilipino Workers Center, in Los Angeles, are connected to relief efforts on the ground in the Philippines.

Humera Afridi is a former Open City Creative Nonfiction Fellow at the Asian American Writers Workshop. She studied fiction at The Writers Institute, The CUNY Graduate Center and earned an MFA at NYU, where she was the recipient of a New York Times Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, and the anthologies And the World Changed (Feminist Press, 2008), 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11 (NYU Press, 2002) and Leaving Home (Oxford University Press, 2001). She lives with her son in New York City.

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