How do we respond when loved ones are the victims of natural disasters? I hadn’t needed to ask myself the question until it happened to me.
On April 16, 2016, my country, Ecuador, experienced a devastating natural disaster. A severe earthquake with a moment magnitude of 7.8 centered approximately 27 kilometers from the towns of Muisne, Pedernales, and Portoviejo (located at the coast of Ecuador.) This mortifying event psychologically and mentally impacted thousands of lives, causing over 1,000 deaths and hundreds of disappearances.
I remember that night with such clarity: Six other Ecuadorian friends and I happened to be gathered together in the kitchen in my last apartment on Erie Street in Chicago. It was around midnight when we all suddenly started receiving desperate phone calls, texts and tragic photographs as we listened and read all sorts of news coming from family members and different social media like WhatsApp, Twitter, BBC News, and FaceBook, all telling different stories and versions of what happened in Ecuador. What do you do when you are so far away and realize that is your country’s situation? What do you do when you have family and friends living or vacationing in the most affected towns where the earthquake took place? How do you react to the tragedy and chaos going on in your home?
We seven Ecuadorians gathered in a room, all acknowledging that they inhabit another continent and that all they wanted is to be home in Ecuador and to help those who were direct victims of the earthquake.
There is something we shared in common in that room besides being Ecuadorians: We were all in the same shock and were willing to do anything to create awareness at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and within other communities who didn’t know anything about Ecuador and what it was going through. Why did people not know? Why did we, as Ecuadorians, feel we did not have enough support from our school?
We started collecting both physical and online donations on campus to raise funds in Chicago. Funds that would directly go to Ecuador on a flight donated by an airline. We were thankful for people’s sympathy and empathy regarding Ecuador’s situation and were able to collect around ten boxes of medicine, food and other emergency supplies needed for the people and children who were victims of the earthquake.
We also engaged as a community through solidarity and teamwork. Not only did we raise awareness through international and domestic communities at SAIC but we also started and curated an exhibition to raise funds. The exhibit took place at the Open Center for the Arts and we named it after the earthquake: “7.8.” The showh was an opportunity to communicate our loss as well as donate art pieces to get funds for our victims.
Our entire country was emotionally, mentally and physically affected by the earthquake. Although that physical disconnection is still an acknowledgment of space, time and distance it is also an emotional reaction for those of us who were not there physically but who are constantly present — even from a continent away. There is a place within us that cannot and will not leave our country or hometown. Even if we are not there, we always are.
Being far away from home is challenging every day, not because it’s painful, but because there is a physical disconnection when one realizes the distance that exists between oneself and the place where we grew up. Yet what is this type of homesickness? What does it feel like? And when do we feel it most?
For those of us who are miles and airplane rides away from home, it is extremely difficult to not be able to be there when you feel you are needed most, when you experience a feeling of responsibility and empathy for your loved ones as well as for your country — not only as a person but a citizen, a family and community member.
We always have our family and our home in the back of our mind, especially when your home is going through such pain and you find yourself in a position of impotence, assimilating the magnitude of the circumstances. Present in between new smells, cultural exchange, colors, and types of food, there is always a filled up space for our home. It is a place within ourselves that represents who we are and where we come from.
We can all empathize with a country, a place or a person. However, it is indeed a different kind of empathy the one you experience when it’s your country and your people being directly affected. It is the kind of empathy that affects your state of mind, your sense of stability, and your capacity as a human being to control. These are the things that remind you of where you are standing internationally and force you to acknowledge what distance does, what it doesn’t do and how far it can get.