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A long way from home

October 2005
A long way from home

Three-year-old Riya Desai tells her new neighbors in Roswell, Ga., that all her toys are intact back home in St. Bernard Parish, La. She seems to be pretty sure about it because they were on the second floor of her house. Or, perhaps, what remains of it. Riya belongs to one of the many South Asian families who have left "home" and dispersed to cities across the United States.

Riya and her 11-year-old brother, Rishi, came to Roswell with parents Jigisha and Jatin Desai to live with Tanweer Mian and his family. Tanweer's wife, Dipti, is Jigisha's sister. It is not just family members opening doors to people who fled the destruction of Katrina. Alpa Naik, who happens to be a friend, is also staying with her daughter and husband at Tanweer's home.

For the Desais trouble was brewing literally in the backyard the day Katrina chose its path through New Orleans. Their home in the parish abuts the levee wall protecting the Big Easy from Lake Pontchartrain's waters. While the levee did not break near their home, it did a few blocks away. But that meant little to the Desais. The damage has been as bad as it would have been near the breaking point. The journey to Roswell has been a long one for them. At first, taking almost eight hours to reach Baton Rouge, which is less than 70 miles away. "We stayed at a friend's place for two nights, before realizing that there was no way we would be able to go back soon," says Jigisha, whose husband had gone back to New Orleans to survey the damage to their house and businesses. And from what he has told her, it is going to be a year or more for the business to get back on track. "My husband tells me that the ground floor of our house was in five feet of water for almost three weeks," she says.

When they left their home, little did they expect to stay away so long. "Their situation is similar to a traveler who loses all his luggage on the way," adds Tanweer.

Jigisha says they managed to bring along cherished and valuable things such as photographs with them. But other than that they have relied on the bigheartedness of their host, friends and neighbors. "The support that we have gotten from the community here is awesome," says Jigisha, whose biggest worry is where they go from here. "We want to go back and start back all over again."

Her husband Jatin has grown up in the New Orleans area, and for him that is the only home he knows. "He built everything from scratch, his business, his home," she says. Now with everything lost, their first concern was to register themselves as evacuees with FEMA, filling out online forms. This has helped them obtain passes from FEMA, which allows them back into New Orleans and to enter their home and property.

Jatin, who calls his family in Roswell "almost every hour," found New Orleans a different place. "He said the destruction was much worse than what the pictures on television were showing. It is more three-dimensional," says Tanweer. "It is horrific, the damage, the muck, the oily residue and the stink ? And he (Jatin) found the soldiers everywhere, securing every corner of the city." According to Tanweer, Jatin was not even allowed to take away a toy from his own home without showing the ID issued by FEMA.

Though happy to have at least the luxury of a family member's home, the Desais, however, have been trying to cushion their children from the shock of losing a place of their own. So far they haven't shown any visible signs of trouble. While Jigisha's daughter is too young to fathom the trouble that has befallen them, Rishi, her son, is old enough to feel the change. "He still expects to go back soon," she says. "He is probably bored too."

- Mohsin Syed

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