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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Nepal Part 2: Hope Among the Ruins

Laxmi (our lovely program director of the Nepal Hemophilia
When visiting developing countries, I love visiting hemophilia families out in their homes, something I've been doing for almost 20 years. These can be rough days. It’s hot, we’re at a high altitude in Kathmandu, Nepal; my heart pounds when I exert myself too much, and I get dehydrated quickly. But think of what these families endure, especially post-earthquake. They give me strength.

Binita's house 

Binita and son Aayush
Laurie Kelley and Aayush 

Ujol, Guyatri, Binita, Laurie, Barun, Nirmal, Manil
Society), Gyatri (admin assistant) and Beda (person with hemophilia and president of NHS) came at 10 to get me in a sturdy land rover. I had four gift bags of donated items for any kids we would visit. We dodged the traffic jams of downtown Kathmandu and hit the outskirts. Our first stop was not too far. We parked the car, stepped out. Before starting the ascent of stairs to our first home, I noticed a lowly worm writing in the dust at the foot of the first stair, ants crawling on it. I love garden creatures, worms especially (I guess because they are so helpless), and always am fascinated when I find them. To the horror of my hosts, I bent over and picked it up and tossed it gently into the plants, so it could live. The ants would surely eat it. Laxmi gasped… but Beda said, “It’s a living thing, too.” “Yes, I added, and they are good for the earth.” I made them laugh when I cheered, “Save One Life!” Or worm.

Living in a shed

The house we visited was grand, tall, mounted on a small hill. But it was damaged in the earthquake and now has been deemed unlivable. Binita greeted us; she’s a beautiful woman, but her eyes carry such sadness in them. Her husband, a handsome man in his early 40s, died last year of cancer. This leaves her a widow, never able to remarry according to custom, and alone now with a child with hemophilia in a land that provides no factor, save for donations that trickle in. There are never enough donations for the needs.

She greeted me warmly and we hugged, as if we had known each other for years. We gingerly stepped inside. Cracks and fallen plaster abounded. We climbed the wooden stairs, up to the second and then third floors, until we stood on the upper balcony, which provided a rich view of lush Kathmandu Valley. What a shame; this is truly a lovely house.

Aayush, her son, a handsome young boy with a dazzling smile gladly let us take photos.

Back downstairs and we navigated through the dirt and sometimes mud to Binita’s temporary house. This means she lives in a corrugated steel shed. Yes, a shed. It bakes them in the intense heat, and deafens them when the rains come. There is no insulation or luxury. The carpets on the floor were soaked. We kicked off our shoes at the door, as is the custom, before entering and our feet were wet immediately. Kindly, Binita poured us Mountain Dew, a popular drink here. We sat and chatted. On the wall were photos of her and her husband from when they got married. A beautiful couple, full of hope.

I asked Laxmi about her situation. “Will she be able to remarry one day?” “Oh no,” Laxmi said. “She cannot.” Many women, some young, lost their husbands during the decade-long armed Maoist insurgency, I’ve read. To remarry, even when widowed at the tender age of 21, would be to flaunt the social order. And the pressure can be intense and cruel. It’s difficult for a woman to be single here. Almost impossible. Binita added, “Nine people live here too.” Her in-laws, and more. I looked around slowly. The shed couldn’t be more than 15 ft x 20 ft. Nine people…

Reconstruction everywhere

When we emerged from the shed, we caught Barun (a man with hemophilia who used to be on the executive committee of the Nepal Hemophilia Society) smoking over by a barrel. We tsk-tsked him but he jokingly quipped, “My painkiller.”  We trudged back to the car a slightly different way, and eventually down a paved road by a massive wall of stone. “This had been totally collapsed from the earthquake,” Laxmi narrated. Looking up, we saw men diligently at work, cementing the new stones in place. It seemed everywhere in Kathmandu construction was happening.

Next stop, Puskar’s home. This took us further out away from Kathmandu, into a more rural area, in the Kageshwaori Municipality, a town called Sanchez. The drive was probably not more than 40 minutes. We parked near a field, and then hiked down a dirt road. Up ahead was a terrible site: a brick home, completely collapsed. Caved in, red dusty bricks strewn everywhere, but mostly in a vermillion heap. Laxman, the father, stood nearby. He has a handsome, intense face, with a flash of white teeth and readily smiles. Which is hard to believe when you look at what is left of his house. Puskar, who was at school, is 11, factor VIII deficient.

We peppered him with questions: where was he when the quake hit on April 25? What happened?

Ujol and Laurie at Puskar's home
Laxman said he was outside; no one was in the home, thankfully. Indeed, it seems that everyone considers themselves lucky. Lucky that it was a Saturday, and more people were not in office buildings. Lucky it was not a school day, or more children would have died. Lucky, lucky, lucky. It’s a testament to their faith, their reliance that despite their profound losses, they consider themselves lucky.

Chatting in Nepalese, the father and the group of NHS executives all laughed. I marveled at how he could be laughing when fate has dealt him blow after blow: a child with hemophilia, poverty, earthquake. There’s no self-pity, only perseverance and reliance.
We then took a walk, through an open field that was actually refreshing in the mid-day heat, and then through rice crops, startling green and lush, and then over a creek. I had to jump across. For Barun, it was a challenge as he has contractures in his joints. With helping hands from Ujol, the NHS general secretary and father of a son with hemophilia, Barun made it across. We spied a steel, corrugated shed, just like Binita’s, up ahead. This was Laxman’s temporary home. Inside, much the same as Binita’s: hot, dark with a wet floor. Laxman’s wife was present, and sweetly presented us with Mountain Dew.
The hospitality of the poor never ceases to amaze me.

We chatted a while, and took photos. I asked Laxman who was helping him rebuild his home. With Laxmi (the program director of NHS) translating, he replied, “No one. I’m doing it myself.” He works in the daytime at a desk job, then returns each evening to lay bricks. All this was said without self-pity or arrogance.
Puskar's temporary home

When we walked outside we caught Barun again having a smoke, and kidded him about his painkiller. Though this time I think he really needed it.

We brushed through the rice fields again, and back to our trusty Land Rover. Our next stop was to go to the school Puskar attends. It was a short drive, and an impressive school. With 400 uniformed children, the school provided classes, recreation (including a pool) and hot meals. American cartoon characters were brightly painted on the faded yellow wall surrounding the school. Just inside the main gate, gaily colored statues of Buddha, Shiva and Kali.

I asked the headmistress how she felt caring for a child with hemophilia at her school. “It is fine,” she said in perfect English. “We welcome him. The father told us about hemophilia, and we know what to do.” She added, in more measured tones, “We do ask that the children not push him or hurt him. So he often does not play as much as the others.” While she spoke, Puskar walked up, a gangly 11-year-old, all arm and legs, slim, with pale skin, and large eyes. I’m sure he felt embarrassed being called out in front of his classmates, who were all seated quietly under a canopy, eating lunch.

Laxman and son Puskar
The headmistress pointed to the main building, which had visible cracks. “Normally we have class in there,” she explained, “but due to the earthquake, we have to hold class outside.”

Puskar waited patiently, answered some basic questions in English, which he is studying. But I could tell he really wanted to get back to his classmates! We excused him and he took off like a shot, with all of us admonishing him to slow down! It did no good.

We piled back into the Land Rover and headed for the next house. This was in an area very hard hit by the earthquake. Every single building had damage, and whole blocks were nothing but rubble. The earthquake loosened the plaster, covering the buildings, and the bricks tumbled out like a Lego set dumped from a box.  It looked like a bomb had gone off in the center square. In what used to be a park in the center were tents, and squatters in the them.  

A mother shyly tagged alongside me, holding a wide-eyed baby in her arms. She was dirty, thin, but coy. I find the people are always surprised when you smile back and chat with them. She was excited to make contact; her baby not so much, as he leaned way back away from me. She lived in the tent now, and came from another village that was totally destroyed. I thought ironically, we pay to go camping in tents. Her life is now reduced to living in a tent like a refugee.

On to Danchi, Sankhu. We next arrived at the home of Achyut Shrestha, age 26, who wasn’t at home. He’s a government employee now, and no longer in the Save One Life program; another success! The tall, narrow brick home stood on a corner. The mother, a short, dark woman in a flaming red sari, descended slowly down the stairs. She gave us a namaste, and clasped my hands, so happy to see us. Her daughter was also present, and warmly greeted us. They invited us in right away, something I was not so sure we should do. Up the concrete stairs and ducking, entered the small second story room. Cracks veined every wall, and fresh concrete had just been applied to patch up some. It’s a poor home, and not livable. “We use this in the day time to cook,” the mother explained. “But at night we sleep somewhere else.” The government has condemned most of the buildings in town. I’m not sure what will be the fate of everyone.

Hospitality in the temporary home
The funds donated by Save One Life and the Mary Gooley Treatment Center (Rochester, NY) will help pay for repairs. We walked down the road, out side the town, and saw sprawling hills, green fields and small temples. Next to the temples, more tents; a half naked baby boy toddled outside one of them. We smiled at his charm, but inside felt sad about his condition. Down the road, around a bend, we came to another part of town. The mother explained she was having a new house built. Sure enough, a man, woman and young girl were busy laying bricks. There would be two homes, in one building.

Why two? She smiled shyly. “Because I have two sons.” I realize she wants them married with their own homes. We all smiled.

Our last stop was the home of the Rajbchak family. Here live the parents and two young men with hemophilia, Jagatman (age 25) and Jagatlal (nicknamed “Monsoon”). Monsoon was on hand to greet us and was the only family member who spoke English, and not just English but flawless English. He was charming and intelligent. To the left, the remnants of his two-story family home. Half the house collapsed into the lot next to it. I climbed the rubble heap to have a closer look, and down at my feet, amidst the ruins, fresh, strong sprouts were shooting up. It reminded me of a quote from Robert Frost when asked about the meaning of life. His response, “It goes on.” The sprouts reminded me of the reliance of the Nepalese.

Monsoon, like the others, had no self-pity. How could anyone? They all faced the same problems. The boys’ father appeared, a strong man, who is in the process of also singlehandedly building a new home. It’s also a metal shed, but he is plastering the walls to make it more livable. It’s much bigger than the other sheds. We stood inside for a photo.

We walked down the road to see our magnum opus: a mobile cell phone repair shop. Though humble by Western standards, the shop was perched at a crossroads (perfect location!) and had an open front that promoted watches, toys, picture frames and candy. Inside, visible from the front counter, was a young man busily at work: Jagatman. He’s rather famous to both Save One Life and Project SHARE.

We first heard of Jagatman when he needed to have his leg amputated, result of an untreated bleed. We quickly gave the donation and the operation was a success. He has an artificial leg that enables him to walk about without crutches. So here he is: 26, one leg, hemophilia, with no home. He was busy at work, surrounded by all sorts of electrical parts, wires and circuits. He knew what he was doing. Through Save One Life he received a scholarship to get training in cell phone repair. Then, with our mircrogrant, he opened his own repair shop.

I consider him a miracle, a marvel. He has unending reservoirs of strength. He paused long enough to smile and thank us, but got back to work. I think he wanted to prove to us that our investment was well used!

We all started to relax, seeing the man he has become, tired after our long day, and happy with this family’s enduring success. The boys’ mother brought out fresh yogurt drink, which was lovely after a long day with no food. We entirely forgot about lunch! At least seven hours had slipped but without food.

Monsoon shared, “The shop is doing well. We are making about $500 a month now. But we have to pay rent and for the items.” Still, $500 a month is an astounding figure for Nepal, and for a disabled person, and just after a major earthquake.

When it was time to go, we shook hands, gave our namastes, and waved good-bye. The long and bumpy ride back to Kathmandu was punctuated with laughs and shrieks from the back seats: the young people, Laxmi, Barun, Nirmal, were swapping stories and jokes. I didn't know what they were saying but their laughter gave me so much pleasure and hope.

Jagatman and brother Jagatlal, who both have hemophilia
Jagatman's store: a Save One Life success story!
The Nepalese seem to have great faith, and the most reliant of spirits. It seems nothing can keep them down long. I hope this is true, because they still have much to do in the aftermath of April 25. But they—we—will do it together.

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