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Tonga’s proud diaspora confronts daunting challenge of disaster response

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                                Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, left, stands with his coach at the Tokyo Olympics on July 27.


    Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, left, stands with his coach at the Tokyo Olympics on July 27.

Whether as seasonal laborers or international athletes, tens of thousands of Tongans — more Tongans than the Tongans actually living in Tonga — have resettled around the globe, a vast diaspora that holds tight to its pride and passion for its faraway South Pacific home.

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.”

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 skirt.

“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.

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 plight.

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 endeavor. 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 center 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 organized simply to send things to anyone who needed them, Salesa said.

“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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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