Three Indian Americans from Chicago, Illinois have raised a remarkable $1.5 million in five days to aid the over one million victims of the devastating floods in Kerala, which have claimed 400 lives.
Arun Nellamattom, Ajomon Poothurail, and Abin Kulathilkarottu – all natives of the flood-ravaged state – created a Facebook fundraising page on August 15, Kerala Flood Relief Fund from USA: https://bit.ly/2BCqAeJ. Within five days, they were able to raise $1.3 Million and transferred the amount to the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund.
On seeing Indian Americans’ warm response to the campaign, Kerala CM’s office approached Arun Nellamattom and Ajomon Poothurail to continue the fundraising effort. As of Aug. 23, the site had raised $1.5 million, from 30,000 donations, ranging in amounts from $20 to over $250. All donations are being channeled through the Care and Share Foundation, a 501 (c) 3-approved charity, which allows donors to receive a tax credit.
Now, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has personally invited Arun Nellamattom and Ajomon Poothurail to visit Kerala and receive gratitude in person. Receiving news of the amount donated by them, a letter came to them from M Sivasankar IAS, secretary to Kerala Chief Minister, inviting Arun and Ajomon to a meeting with the CM.
“It is my pleasure to invite you to come down to Kerala and meet the Hon. Chief Minister and receive our State’s gratitude in person,” the letter says. It adds: “During your visit to Kerala, we would like to arrange an interaction session with you for our start-up community to share your experience.” The letter further makes note of the fundraiser campaign being closed on Facebook, and prompts them to keep it open since ‘the need of resources for rebuilding the state is very high’.
The social activists note that more than $4 billion will be needed to rehabilitate the state known as “God’s Own Country.” Vijayan has invited all three to visit the state and receive gratitude in person.
“We have made history! We did not have any barriers such as political, religious, or anything that apart human in this campaign. We all are able to reaffirm the trust in humanity. This would not have happen without each and every one of you,” wrote Abraham Kulathilkarottu, who is also affiliated with the campaign.
There are numerous local organizations that are raising funds to support the state of Kerala that has been devastated by the fury of the floods. Another Indian American NGO, Sewa International, has raised over $10,000 for the flood relief operations in the state, with the aim of raising $100,000 overall. Sewa International, which led Indian American efforts during Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year, will channel funds through its India partner, Deseeya Seva Bharati Keralam, it said. Over 5,000 volunteers are creating food packets and cooking kits and opening free kitchens and medical camps, according to Quint. Several U.S-based Malayalee organizations have repurposed planned Onam celebrations into fundraisers for flood relief.
Currently, donations for the Kerala flood relief amount to nearly INR 800 crore. The state is planning to seek INR 3000 crore loan from the World Bank for rebuilding the infrastructure and rehabilitating the homeless. More than $4 billion is required to restore Kerala to what it was before the floods occurred.
Evidently, Kerala tourism suffered a huge setback in the wake of the floods. With the infrastructure in shambles at popular tourist places including Munnar and Alappuzha, the state tourism industry has incurred a whopping loss of INR 2100 crore. An estimated INR 100 crore is required to repair the tourism properties owned and managed by Kerala government. Many planned trips to Kerala for vacations in August and September have been canceled or postponed.
Arun Nella, who co-founded a startup apart from running other businesses in Chicago, got the idea, speaking to a group of friends. “The support given by five of them is what made the fundraiser happen,” says Arun, over a call. Joining him in the fundraiser was Ajomon, another businessman based in Chicago.
Arun reveals that the fundraiser had to be closed because it was started as a personal fundraiser and he had to check the taxes and other formalities. “Fundraiser campaign on Facebook is fairly new. It is allowed in select countries and Facebook lets it happen through crowd-funding. It assigns a team to work with us. And many people reached out to contribute; I reckon at least 30,000 people. Mostly from the US – the fundraiser itself is called Kerala Flood Relief Fund from USA,” Arun says.
The contributions mostly came from US Malayalis, but there were also NRIs from other parts of the country and even a small number of foreigners donating for the cause.
Arun had personally invited 200 people but through the campaign more than 1 lakh invitations went out. When he closed the campaign on Monday, there were a lot of people reaching out to him, saying they too want to contribute and to reopen it.
“I have an advisor called Dr Narendrakumar, who called from New York and asked me if we could reopen the campaign. I said we would need a good reason for it like a letter from the CM’s office. And the next morning there came this letter. By then the team from Facebook too said we could reopen it since it was going so well,” Arun adds.
His own place in Kottayam too had been slightly affected by the floods, but luckily Arun’s immediate family was not at home. “My parents are with me on a holiday now. My wife and kids too are here. I should mention family support because I have been fully engaged in this work the past few days and they were very understanding.”
Ajomon too hails from Kottayam. “Initially, when the fundraiser was started, we were not sure how people would view it. Would they think it is a scam? It seemed a better idea if it didn’t go in one person’s name,” Arun says. That’s when Ajomon joined.
Since it is now clear the funds are being raised to help a state recover from a disaster, the money won’t be taxed and even the fee FB takes to run such a campaign has been waived. “We hope to come to Kerala next week, as soon as everything is clear, and pass on the amount directly to the CM,” Arun says. Both the techies took a flight to Kerala from Chicago O’Hare International Airport on August 27.