Tonga’s proud diaspora confronts daunting challenge of disaster response

So when a violent volcanic eruption and tsunami struck
Tonga nearly two weeks ago, these overseas Tongans were buffeted too, first by
worry for their loved ones’ well-being as the disaster cut communication lines,
then by the daunting challenge of delivering assistance.

Connectivity has gradually returned in some parts of
the country. Many, if not most, Tongans overseas have been able to reconnect
with relatives, hearing stories of mothers grabbing bare-bottomed babies and
running for safety as the waves approached, or of a blanket of ash settling on
cherished family homes. There is a feeling of immense gratitude that the death
toll was somehow limited to three.

But the country faces a long recovery, especially on
its hard-hit outer islands, and the Tongan diaspora is contending with the
ongoing pandemic, a snarled global supply chain and limited internet access as
it tries to help.

Tongans overseas, who typically have greater earning
potential than those within the country itself, have a long history of sending
money home. In 2019, remittances to Tonga were worth the equivalent of 37% of
its gross domestic product, the highest figure of any nation in the world,
according to data from the World Bank. Tonga’s GDP per capita was about $4,600
in 2020, less than one-thirteenth that of the United States.

These economic ties have long helped Tongans overseas
maintain their relationships with the country and its culture, whether as
workers in New Zealand or Australia or as athletes in the upper echelons of
professional sports like rugby.

“Remittance is not just solely about money,” said
Andrew Grainger, a researcher in sports culture in the Pacific at Massey
University in New Zealand. “There are emotional, psychological, social,
cultural aspects to it as well. It’s showing one’s obligation and one’s passion
for community, despite the fact that they may be living in another country.”

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Some of those ties are now disrupted, as most banks
and money transfer services have been forced offline in Tonga. The country’s
global athletes are among those working to raise money and find ways to get it
to their homeland.

“Sports stars around the world from Tonga, whether it
be in rugby or all the other sports — at heart, they’re still Tongan,” said
Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua, who first drew the world’s attention as the
country’s flag-bearer at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, where he
entered the Olympic Stadium, chest glistening, wearing a traditional taʻovala

“They still grew up climbing coconut trees. They still
go to church. No one tells them what to do except their mother,” he added.
“They have a strong connection back to their roots, back to their people.”

Throwing their weight behind online fundraising for
the country’s recovery, Taufatofua and other Tongan athletes, like
international rugby players Hosea Saumaki and Malakai Fekitoa, who both play in
Britain, are using their star power to focus the world’s attention on an island
country that is seldom in the media spotlight.

Just more than 100,000 people live in Tonga itself,
with an estimated 150,000 people making up its diaspora.

“We end up in all different corners,” said Taufatofua,
who has competed in taekwondo and, more improbably, cross-country skiing in the
Olympics, becoming the first person since 1924 to participate in three
successive Games. “We’re voyagers, right?”

Between them, New Zealand and Australia, where
Taufatofua lives, are home to an estimated 120,000 Tongans. While they have
maintained a strong sense of community, the pandemic has made it difficult to
gather and give.

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Church services have been held on Zoom for so long that,
at one Tongan church in Melbourne, Australia, spiders took up residence in the
lock on the front door.

“Because of the pandemic and because of the
restrictions, we know we can’t get together,” said Mele Makelesi Facci, a
Tongan community leader living in Melbourne.

Instead of a major fundraising event with, say,
traditional dancing, Facci and other members of the community have turned to
virtual solutions like radio events to raise money and awareness about Tonga’s

In the immediate term, people there need cash, clean
water and food, to replace contaminated supplies and crops damaged by a coating
of ash. Later on, they will need supplies to replace damaged buildings,
tractors to till the ashy soil and boats to connect Tonga’s more remote islands
with its mainland.

Getting those funds and goods across the Pacific is
currently a hugely complicated endeavour. Besides the challenges in
transferring money, the pandemic has caused upheaval in the highly intricate
and interconnected global supply chain, producing a shortage of shipping
containers, as well as space on the boats that carry them.

Auckland, New Zealand, which is home to 60,000
Tongans, has become a centre for people to send goods to Tonga. More than 20
shipping containers, many holding drums of water and groceries with messages of
love scrawled on their sides, will soon arrive in Tonga, said Jenny Salesa, a
member of the New Zealand Parliament who is of Tongan descent.

While most of those goods are direct remittances from
New Zealand residents to family members in Tonga, many other people came to the
stadium where the effort was being organised simply to send things to anyone
who needed them, Salesa said.

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“In the face of such huge tragedy like this, a twin
disaster of a volcanic eruption and a tsunami, Tongans have united, have come
together, to send their ‘ofa, their aroha,” she said, using the Tongan and
Indigenous New Zealand words for love.

Taufatofua, the Tongan Olympian, has so far raised
more than $750,000 toward a $1 million goal. He hopes to fund the rebuilding of
at least one school, he said.

Donations have rolled in from Tongans and others who
care about them. Taufatofua said he had received messages from across the
world, including from the parents of a little boy in Japan who had donated his
allowance to send bread to people in the Ha’apai region, where Taufatofua’s
father is from.

“Tongans have such big personalities and hearts that
everyone seems to know one,” Taufatofua said. “The number is small, but the
personality and the giving is big.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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