On October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy struck my home: New York City, on a cloudy Thursday evening. Sandy had a massive impact on the city that never sleeps. The entire circulatory system, the subways, of the city were shut down, which made connecting with family and friends impossible.
However, Sandy’s impact was felt long after it hit New York, especially in more urban communities with a higher concentration of people of color and lower socio-economic backgrounds. My neighborhood, Red Hook, lies on a body of water known as the Gowanus Canal and was at the time a Zone 1 Area, which meant that it was one of the places that the hurricane hit hardest. The hardest days of the hurricane came days after when the wind was still and the brown projects buildings seemed colorless, as if the building were tired from defending the people from the elements. This garnered a new interest in my community by news outlets and outside organizations, who began attempting to cover the affect of Sandy on my community. But, these narratives did more damage than actually help us. It is interesting, how much a difference of words can really impact someone.
Even before learning the importance of terms like: survivor or testimony since I have begun working for USC Shoah Foundation. I always struggled with being called a victim. I remember hearing how news reporters would report on Red Hook, while waiting on supply lines to get food for my brother and my mother. I would hear, “these poor people”, “the people that have nothing left to lose”, or my least favorite “victims of circumstance.” It was not that these words upset me, but I just did not know what community these reporters were speaking about. The community I saw and experienced were unified more than ever. Our neighbors were knocking on everyone’s door asking if everyone in the building needed assistance or help getting food. These were the stories I encountered on a daily basis. One, of people resisting the circumstance that they were in. People who worked together to overcome the obstacles that they were facing. The narrative of a community that managed to stay together despite the individual obstacles everyone was facing was powerful.
I am reminded of the testimony of Esther Bem, who found safety in Italy during the Holocaust. She remarks about how despite the difficult circumstances that people were facing at the time, there was also lots of good and kind moments. She states, “I would like the post-Holocaust generation to know that there was decency and goodness in those days. That not everything was negative.” She goes on to recant the generosity of people who took tremendous risk in helping people like her. She mentions, “They made a choice to save us, to shield us, to feed us when they didn't have anything themselves. They were people totally altruistic. They did it without making us feel like intruders in their everyday life.” The power of community is something that can help anyone going through a tough time find the motivation to keep fighting. Hurricane Sandy was one of the toughest moments of my life, but also one where I truly experienced the generosity of people. One day when me and my friends were playing basketball to escape the drama of waiting on two-hour supply lines, a woman approached me, my brother and our friends. It turned out to be one of my brother’s middle school teachers. She said she had been driving around the neighborhood to see if any of her students were around so that she could give them supplies. We turned her down initially because we did not want to impose, but she insisted. She led us to her car where I saw my high school teacher. Her smile was big and warm. Our teachers dug into the trunk of their car and gave us beans, soups, rice and even food for my cat, Tiga. The next day, more teachers came to my home to deliver supplies. My teachers act of kindness gave me and my family the strength to keep persevering.
People often feel like when they go through obstacles in their lives that they are in it alone, but what I have learned from experiencing Hurricane Sandy and listening to the wise words of survivors like Esther Bem, is that generosity is abundant even in the most difficult situations.
This holiday season be mindful of those around you and be thankful for what you have, but most of all give to others who may not have as much you do at the moment. Giving something to someone such as food or even as simple as a smile can make a significant difference in a person’s life. There is power in giving and most of all: there is power in community.