Several Indian students were without a home on the freezing morning of Jan. 5, the day after the first snow storm of the year, when fire engulfed their apartment at 238-240 Maple Avenue in Kearny, New Jersey. Indian-American organizations and the Indian government stepped in to help these 11 Indian students in their hour of need.
According to NJ.com, 23 more people and 10 other families were also affected by the fire that morning and Desi Talk had a chance to speak with a few of those individuals who lost everything in the fire that day.
Swapnil Deshmukh, a graduate student at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), who came to the U.S. from Maharashtra in August 2015 to pursue his master’s degree in information security, said “at around 6:30 – 7 a.m. when everyone was sleeping, the fire alarm went off, so I went downstairs to check and saw fire coming out of the heating unit in the basement. So I called 911 and went upstairs to tell everyone to get out of the building.”
Deshmukh said he just left as is in the clothes he was wearing, “I lost everything including my passport and visa documents. I came from India with three bags in my hand and now I have nothing, I have to start from scratch now.”
Ashish Kulkarni, also an NJIT graduate student from Pune, who came to the U.S. about two years ago, remembered to take his passport and student ID with him when he fled the building.
“I was trying to stay calm,” said Kulkarni, who thought that the fire would only stay contained to the basement and not reach their apartment on the third floor. But strong winds carried the fire up, spreading to the second and third floors.
“The people living on the second floor were able to collect most of their belongings but we, being on the third floor, just ran out and were able to grab only a couple things in hand,” said Kulkarni recalling how scary and cold it was that day.
Nayan Sadafer, also from Pune, said he was getting ready for work that day when he heard the fire alarm go off at around 7 a.m.
“I was getting ready for work and I heard the fire alarm so I went into my room and saw smoke and thought that my room was on fire, but I later realized that it was actually in the basement and we were being told to leave the building as someone called 911,” said Sadafer. He grabbed all of his documents before running out.
He told Desi Talk the building took about two to three hours to burn down, after which he went to work.
He said the last two weeks have been the “worst two weeks of my life.” He works in the back room at For All Children and Adult Dentistry, nearby. His friend who works with him is in India on vacation.
NJ.com reported how the dark smoke from the fire could be seen from miles, as firefighters worked in below-freezing temperatures, to fight the blaze. Water pressure was one of the biggest challenges in those temperatures.
“Local residents as well as businesses also provided food to anyone who needed a meal, the Library acted as a warming center, and donation drop-off locations were set up around town,” NJ.com reported.
Deshmukh, Kulkarni and Sadafer all said the Indian Consulate along with the Indian government has been working with them in recovering the belongings they lost in the fire that Friday, especially any important documents. The American Red Cross, the Mayor of Kearny, Alberto G. Santos, as well as other Indian organizations are also helping out by providing them with food, shelter and clothing, they added.
Currently, several people are living with other friends in the area Sadafer said, because rooms are available because people are away on vacation to India. But some have now found another apartment nearby.
Deshmukh said that Srujal Parikh, the president-elect of Federation of Indian Associations (FIA), has been calling him about four to five times a day just to check up on them and make sure that whatever else is needed is given to them.
“They called the Consulate in New York informing them of their situation and in return they got invited to the Consulate. When Consul General Sandeep Chakravorty heard about their situation he called and explained the situation to me asking if FIA could help out and I gave in,” said Parikh. According to Parikh, the Indian Consulate found out about the situation after one of the students tweeted to the Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj asking for help. Swaraj has a reputation for responding promptly to Indian residents abroad who encounter problems.
“We also provided them with food, clothing, cooking utensils, and $50 gift cards to grocery stores and have even made accommodations for nine beds, since two of the students have moved out to live with other people,” Parikh told Desi Talk.
Parikh also said that while the students are ready to get back on their feet and move on with their lives, they need legal help to get compensated by the landlord, for belongings lost in the fire, such as laptops and other expensive items.
“For the first two nights following the fire, they weren’t able to sleep but when I met them a couple days back they told me ‘Srujal bhai, we are very thankful to you and the members of your organization. You gave us a new direction in life, otherwise we had lost hope’,” Parikh said. The students also expressed a wish to work with FIA in the future.