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Italian-Americans mobilize to help earthquake region

From Babylon to Little Italy, Italian-Americans with a connection to the Abruzzo region desperately reached out Tuesday to learn the fate of relatives after an earthquake devastated the village of L'Aquila.

Italy's government said it had not yet decided what help it needed, but in Italian and non-Italian neighborhoods across Long Island, would-be donors insisted they would move forward with or without the government's blessing.

"If they need professional engineers, then that's what we'll send," said Angie Markham, executive director of the Italian American Federation of Queens, a community service umbrella organization that covers Queens and Long Island. "If they just need money to help rebuild, then that's what we'll do."

The group will have a fundraising concert headlined by Giada Valenti, a popular Italian singer, she said.

For many Italian-Americans on Long Island, televised images of the quake and its aftershocks brought a sense of relief mingled with pain. Relief because no one among their families and friends had been killed, but unease because they were seeing reports of deaths and injuries in a place they love.

Joseph and Gianni Villella, brothers who live in Glen Cove, Tuesday watched scenes from their parents' homeland. On Monday, they had called a cousin with a sense of dread.

"My cousin Lina said she was fine, and I was so happy -- but then she said my cousin Angelo was hurt," said Gianni, 35.

Angelo had to leap from a balcony at a college in L'Aquila and broke his leg, Gianni said. The cousin was discharged from a hospital with a cast on his leg, the brothers learned.

For Angelo and Palmina Sarra of Bethpage, emigrants from the Abruzzo region, news of the earthquake also struck home.

The couple has a nephew attending a school in L'Aquila as well as family in the region that felt the tremors from the earthquake.

Palmina's sister in Italy was frantically trying to get in touch with her son, Valerio Di Tollo, 22. Finally, hours after the quake, she received a text message that he had escaped safely and had fled on foot -- walking about 15 miles with friends.

"He escaped, thank God, we were all worried about it," said Angelo Sarra, 62, of Bethpage. "He left everything. He ain't got nothing anymore."

Di Tollo's mother picked him up and apparently he was anxious. "He stood outside with friends; they didn't want to even sleep in the house," said Angelo Sarra. "They had some bad shock. You can imagine, a kid."

Sarra, who immigrated to the United States in 1967, said every year he visits the region and his hometown of Musellaro, about 20 miles from L'Aquila.

"Ninety-nine fountains and 99 churches," he said of L'Aquila. "A beautiful town, with mountains all around."

The motto of people from the Abruzzo region is "strong and gentle," he added.

He plans to send money. "We are the type of people who are going to rebuild. Forte. Strong."

Tuesday, phone calls flooded the Italian-American Museum in Manhattan's Little Italy, which is collecting funds to rebuild homes destroyed in the quake.

"Every penny we raise will go directly to the families in rebuilding their homes," Joseph Scelsa, president and founder of the museum on Mulberry Street, said at a news conference.

Scelsa said 5,000 people with connections to the Abruzzo region live in New York City, with 2,000 of them living in Astoria, Queens, where many of the immigrants settled after World War II.

Tuesday, people walked into the museum to make donations, with some putting $20 bills into a clear box located at the reception desk.


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