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Anxious wait continues for Tongan families

Gisborne's Pasifika community members are struggling with the devastation of the volcanic eruption in Tonga but believe the faith and resilience of the kingdom's people will get them through.

Connection remains an issue for those trying to get word from family back home after the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano and subsequent tsunami.

Gisborne-based Pacific Islanders' Community Trust (PICT) chair Pauli Ma'afu QSM was on a routine phonecall to family on Saturday night when he was cut off.

“I kept asking ‘what, what . . . where are you?' But I heard nothing back.”

Since then, Mr Ma'afu has not been able to contact any members of his family in Tonga.

“It is hard because we are feeling anxious,” he said. “We want to know how they are and whether they are safe.

“For me, being told nothing major has happened is not good enough. I want to hear from our people on the ground in Tonga.”

Mr Ma'afu said from the information he received through the Pasifika network around New Zealand, people were crammed into two-to-three bedroom houses to seek shelter from the waves and volcanic ash.

“We have heard that there are some villages where people can go to seek shelter but when they go to that place, it is full. A lot of our people are living on roads and in cars.

“Since the tragedy, we have been praying every morning from Gisborne and all over New Zealand for the people of Tonga.

“It's hard because I have seen Tonga, my home as a child. My feelings are a bit different from the generation born here. I was born over there.

“I can't imagine and see in my mind what is happening in Tonga — whether they have food and water to survive.”

PICT Gisborne operations manager Dr ‘Alaimaluloa Toetu'u-Tamihere said Tongan communities across the country were planning to send help as soon as they could . . . “whether it is money or shipments of necessities such as bottled water and clothes, as most families have lost everything judging from latest official reports”.

“Tongan communities are anxiously awaiting word of their loved ones who they have not heard from.”

To alleviate stress, a Tongan radio station in Australia and linked to Auckland was running live chain prayers, Dr Toetu'u-Tamihere said.

“You can call in on-air to share your feelings and prayers.

“This has alleviated some anxiety and depression among the community worldwide because Tongans are a people of faith.

“We rely on that to calm people down. The work of that radio station was amazing.

“Sitting in the dark not knowing how your families are doing while the waves were doing damage, I think it helped all of us.”

It was estimated it would take two to three weeks to establish a proper connection with Tonga, Dr Toetu'u-Tamihere said

“Tongan people are resilient. They have been for centuries.

“This is not our first volcanic eruption. We will get through this through support and aroha from within Tonga and our neighbouring nations.

“I am hopeful we can make it through because we all stand together as one to support one another during this difficult time.

“We are thankful to all Kiwis and the many people from across the diaspora for the outpouring of aroha (love), words of support and solidarity.”

Mr Ma'afu also received calls on Monday from Gisborne Mayor Rehette Stoltz and former Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon, who sent their aroha to the Tongan communities.

-- If you are a New Zealander and you require consular assistance, or are concerned about a New Zealand citizen in Tonga please contact the New Zealand Consular Emergency line on +64 99 20 20 20.

-- If you are concerned or have lost contact with Tongan citizens who are not New Zealand Citizens, NZ Red Cross has activated their Restoring Family Links system for Tonga, which may help to connect you with loved ones. We encourage you to visit this website and enter your family members’ details.

faith, resilience: Pacific Islanders' Community Trust Tairāwhiti chair Pauli Ma'afu QSM was talking to family in Tonga the night of the volcanic eruption and tsunami. He has not been able to get in contact with them since but says they are a resilent people of faith who will 'make it through'. Picture by Paul Rickard
BEFORE AND AFTER: This combination of the satellite images provided by Maxar Technologies shows homes and buildings in Tonga on December 29, 2021, above, then on January 18, 2022 after the eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai. An ash cloud blanketed the nation, raising health and water quality issues.