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Helping Nepal recover

The shaking started just a few hours before a big early birthday party was scheduled for me; I'll turn 90 in June. I was at my house in Nepal, not far from the center of Patan, a city right next to Kathmandu, talking to my driver, Runjin, about hanging some Tibetan flags in my bedroom. As we both fell to the floor, he grabbed my arm and kept trying to reassure me, "It's OK, Olga, Didi (older sister)." A heater on wheels came rolling toward us, and I kicked it back, slithering to get under my desk. Then the shaking stopped, and we went outside.

My first thought was for the children who live in the J and K houses, the children's homes in Patan run by the Nepal Youth Foundation, which I founded. These 60 boys and girls range in age from 2 to 16; some are orphans or were abandoned by their parents, some were child beggars, and some are disabled. Thankfully, all the children survived.

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For 25 years, I've divided my time between Nepal and Sausalito, Calif. I first visited Nepal in 1984 just before retiring as a research attorney at the California Supreme Court. I discovered a country and a cause to which I would devote the rest of my life. In 1990, I formed the Nepal Youth Foundation.

In the aftermath of the quake, about 50 people took refuge at my house, including 19 girls who had traveled 14 hours by bus for my birthday party. These girls were once trapped in the Kamlari system — sold into domestic slavery by their desperately poor families. Since 2000, NYF has liberated over 12,000 of these girls, giving their families piglets to compensate for lost earnings. The government now covers these costs, but we continue to provide training and mentoring. I was worried about the girls, but we managed to find them.

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That night, Ram, my cook, prepared a dinner of dal bhat and tarkari (rice, lentils and vegetables) for the big crowd and I worried that water may become a serious problem; our water filter operates on electricity. Power outages will plague Nepal after the quake.

There have been more than 80 aftershocks, some quite severe. The children who live in the J and K houses have been camping out in an empty lot. The little boys view this as an adventure, but I am sure many are shaken by the experience.

My house has a garden with a high wall around it, and a crowd of people camped in the empty space on the other side. Every time the earth shook, a great shout went up.

I returned home to California on Wednesday night after the earthquake. Tragically, the airport for domestic flights is not operational in Nepal. The devastation in rural areas, where 80 percent of Nepalis live, is overwhelming, and there is no way to get relief to them.

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I am so sad to be leaving, when so many people I care for are suffering. But I will be more useful working from California to raise money for the relief effort.

Because NYF is on the ground, we know where the greatest needs are in Nepal. The hospitals are jam-packed and lacking in beds, medical equipment, food and medicine. On Monday, NYF bought 200 mattresses and bedding for one of Nepal's main government hospitals.

NYF has also established a shelter for patients who are ready to be discharged from the hospital but have no place to go because their homes are destroyed, there is no transport, and their relatives can't come for them. We have a facility outside Kathmandu and began moving discharged patients shortly after the quake.

There will be a massive demand for skilled construction workers. NYF plans to train 1,000 people in construction skills that incorporate seismic safety. We also plan to rebuild 50 schools so that children can resume their education.

We're not the only group that has sprung into action, but we are trying to address the most pressing needs. My heart goes out to so many people who have lost so much. Now we have to do what we can to help them recover from this devastation.

Olga Murray is the founder of the Nepal Youth Foundation, which has provided education, health care, shelter, and freedom from servitude to more than 45,000 children; she can be reached through nepalyouthfoundation.org. She wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.

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