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Nepalese students at Towson elementary help with earthquake relief

Eleven-year-old Ritu Ghimire was talking with her grandfather on Skype when, suddenly, the screen went blank and the power cut out. That was the first indication Ritu and her family had of the earthquake April 25 that devastated Nepal.

"We tried calling but we couldn't get through until the next day," said Ritu, a fifth-grader at Pleasant Plains Elementary School. "We've had other earthquakes but nothing this big."

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The quake, which killed nearly 9,000 people and measured at a magnitude of 7.8, was the most damaging in the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal since 1933.

On a sunny day in May, Ritu and five other fifth-grade girls sat behind a table at their school collecting donations for their homegrown earthquake relief fund. Handmade Nepalese flags decorated the table; glass jars labeled with each grade held coins and a few bills.

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"It was totally their idea," said Katie Hess, Pleasant Plains' ESOL (English as a Second Language) teacher, of the school's Nepalese students. "After the earthquake, we got together and brainstormed what we could do. They wanted to help and a fundraiser was one of the most doable options."

Hess estimates that 40 Nepalese children attend the 600-student public school from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Some of the kindergartners were born in the United States, she said, but the older children were born in Nepal, a small mountainous country of 27 million people bordered by China and India and home to Mt. Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

"Many of the students have grandparents, aunts and uncles still living there who were affected by the earthquake," Hess said. "It had personal meaning for them. They were very upset and sad."

One of the students had a relative who was killed in the earthquake, she said.

While all the Nepalese students participated in the earthquake relief fundraiser, held at the school May 26-29, "the fifth grade girls took charge," Hess said. Relatives also took donation jars to a few local places like Subway, Dunkin Donuts and a BP gas station for contributions.

Some of the Nepalese students have the same last name, a reflection of the caste system. Many of them hail from Kathmandu, the capital city. Ritu is one of them. Besides her grandfather, she has an uncle, a physician, and an aunt, a nurse, there. "They helped the earthquake victims," she said.

Dipsu Shrestha, 11, said she was scared for her family in Kathmandu "because they live on a street near Darahara," a historical building whose tall pillar cracked in half during the earthquake.

"My relatives went to an open field when they felt the earthquake," she said.

Ekta Ghimire, 11, has relatives in Kathmandu and Chitabun, a nearby village. When her parents were finally able to get through to them by telephone, "we were so excited. We were screaming," she said.

Prajita Shrestha, 11, has grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Balgun, a township comprised of a collection of villages. Her relatives are nurses, teachers and farmers. She helped make artwork for the fundraiser.

Amrita Shrestha, 11, said she was worried about her many relatives in Kathmandu.

"I am raising money to rebuild their schools and homes," she said.

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Sneha Khati, 11, who came to the United States two years ago, said she remembers Kathmandu, where her relatives live in an apartment building and individual houses.

"No one was hurt. Some have gone back to living in their houses," she said.

The family of Swikritti KC, 11, is from Pokhara, a village. When the earthquake started, she said, her grandfather, an elected state senator, could feel his house vibrating.

"Now it has breaks in the foundation," she said, noting that her mother's side of the family is currently living in tents in Kathmandu.

The Baltimore Association of Nepalese in America (BANA), a non-profit group, has so far raised more $100,000 from the local Nepalese community and other donors for earthquake relief. The Pleasant Plains school's fundraiser will add to that figure.

Kul Acharya, a Parkville resident and engineer, who is president of BANA, said there are about 10,000 Nepalese adults and children in the Baltimore metro area, making it the fourth-largest concentration in the country.

"It's a growing population and we have a lot of Nepalese-Americans in the schools," he said.

A day before the Pleasant Plains fundraiser ended, Hess didn't know how much money had been collected. She figures it will be several hundred dollars, with the winning grade being treated to a Popsicle party.

"The four fourth grades alone contributed over $200," she said. "Even the kindergartners brought in their pennies."

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