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American Samoa: Much Lost, Much Given
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One Volunteer's Story

By Christi Harlan
 
October 23, 2009

She lives thousands of miles away from her family, but she had to go back for the funerals—all of them. Her brother’s. Her uncle’s. All of the cousins from her mother’s side.

Alofa Ofagalilo brings supplies and comfort to those who lost homes and family members on American Samoa. Ofagalilo herself lost family members in the tsunami.
Alofa Ofagalilo brings supplies and comfort to those who lost homes and family members on American Samoa. Ofagalilo herself lost family members in the tsunami.
Ofagalilo works in the field and with the American Red Cross disaster services in Pago Pago, translating for American Samoan families who speak more comfortably in Samoan.
Ofagalilo works in the field and with the American Red Cross disaster services in Pago Pago, translating for American Samoan families who speak more comfortably in Samoan.
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Funerals for 13 members of her family—all killed in the tsunami that swept American Samoa and the neighboring nation of Samoa on the afternoon of Sept. 29.

She wept. She shared memories and hugs with her surviving relatives. But after the funerals, when it was time to go home to Hawaii, she called her husband and child to say she wouldn’t be coming back yet. She had work to do.

So Alofa Ofagalilo, who has worked for the American Red Cross in Hawaii for five years, put on a red-and-white vest and joined the 300 Red Cross workers who have been on American Samoa for three weeks, bringing supplies and comfort to those who lost homes and family members in the waves.

“I’m seeing a lot of people in need,” said Ofagalilo. “The island is a total mess. In some villages, people have been totally wiped out. But everybody is helping each other. They really uplift each other. And anything you can do to help—shake their hand, hug them—it helps.”

With her own grief still raw, Ofagalilo is working in the field and with the American Red Cross disaster services in Pago Pago, translating for American Samoan families who speak more comfortably in Samoan. She is a native of independent Samoa, formerly known as Western Samoa, and her husband is from American Samoa.

“I learned Samoan when I was very young,” Ofagalilo said. “I can translate what help the family needs.”

She is also providing a diplomatic service on an island that values tradition, honor and respect: “You have to say a person’s name correctly,” she said. “We have our own Samoan vowel; it is like an apostrophe when you speak. A pause.”

Her own first name contains one of those verbal apostrophes, and when an “off-islander” tried the pause, Ofagalilo laughed—a good sound to hear.

But her pain is close to the surface. Asked how she works under the weight of losing so much of her family, she wells up.

“It’s hard for me to think about it,” she said. “I don’t really like to think about it….The Red Cross has been my immediate family for this difficult time.”

In Hawaii, she teaches CPR and first aid for the American Red Cross—“I love what I do, teaching in the community,” she said—and she will return to that work soon. But not too soon.

“Going home can wait,” she said. “This was my opportunity to help the people. I’m not going to sit around and feel sorry for me and my family. We are all Samoans. If I help these people, anybody on this island is my family.”

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation's blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit www.redcross.org or join our blog at http://blog.redcross.org.



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