Graduating student assists hometown with Kolkata cyclone relief

Bhabna Banerjee
Bhabna Banerjee

Although she was safe in the Greater Toronto Area, Bhabna Banerjee, a York University international student, was heartbroken by the news in May of devastation wrought by Cyclone Amphan in her hometown of Kolkata, India.

“The state of West Bengal is cyclone-prone, but the worst of the storm usually skirts the city,” said Banerjee, who will graduate from the School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design in October with a BFA in film and a minor in visual journalism. “This year, it hit the state full force and we had the worst damage in 250 years.”

According to CNN, the cyclone caused an estimated $13.2 billion U.S. in damages in West Bengal.

“It took me 72 hours to get in touch with my family and it was scary,” Banerjee said. “I didn’t know if our house was okay. I saw social media reports and it seemed as if everything was gone. Bigger cities have good infrastructure, but not here. In my district, there aren’t many restaurants, but street food is a major part of the economy and all of the vendors’ markets and houses were destroyed.”

Banerjee came to York on a Global Leader of Tomorrow scholarship, and she saw the cyclone as an opportunity to make a difference at home.

“It is such a privilege to be somewhere affluent, and this was the first time I could actually do something for India and give back.”

Throughout her childhood, Banerjee and her father, Manas, had a tradition of visiting the local fruit and vegetable markets each Sunday and enjoying the street food there. Since the market stalls were flattened by the cyclone, she decided that aiding the vendors would be a good way to make a difference. She was keen on reaching out to a group of women she knew personally, who deboned fish at 10 cents for each 100 fish they completed.

To help them recover, Banerjee began a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds.

“I didn’t know who would help, but we live in such a privileged place,” she said. “I told people that if they had a dollar to give, to do so. I had such support from students that I raised $1,500 in three days. Since the money was needed immediately, I sent it back home right away.”

Banerjee’s father, a construction engineer, was able to use the funds to buy materials to help around 20 people construct homes to replace those flattened during the cyclone, including those of the women who deboned fish.

Manas Banerjee and a local fish deboning vendor
Manas Banerjee and a local fish deboning vendor

“My dad has even arranged to pay them a salary every month until the pandemic ends so they can survive,” Banerjee said. “He grew up in an underprivileged community, so he views them as extended family. There’s an emotional connection there, and it was great to do something like that.

“It was so fulfilling to me. I was so down because I couldn’t get my family here. To see my people suffering made me feel so helpless.”

Banerjee says that in addition to assisting these families, she has learned that “even the little bit of power I have can bring about change and make a difference.”

Through her scholarship, she has attended numerous leadership conferences that focus on the workplace, but she now sees that the skills and tools she has acquired are transferable to the community setting.

“Others now ask me for pointers so they can help their communities, too.”

Banerjee hopes to go back to Kolkata for a visit after graduation. She is looking forward to seeing the new homes and, as a filmmaker, to create a short video about the people the cyclone affected.

“Everyone got together and cleaned up,” she said. “Now, we’ll see if people can get back on their feet despite the pandemic.”

During the summer, Banerjee is doing a field placement in the Greater Toronto Area as a storyboard artist for a production company that specializes in filming commercials, a position she hopes will translate into a full-time job.

“It combines both of my degree specialties,” she said.

Even if the placement doesn’t become an ongoing position, Banerjee is hoping to remain in Canada and is prepared for a job search. She has created a website and built a portfolio of her work, and thanks to field placement, has “made some great industry connections.”