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IT'S VALDOCCO IN NEPAL - A Salesian response to the earthquake's aftermath

By Jude Sebastian SDB
Top: devastated school building; Middle: The Salesian Family relief work Team in planning and assessment session; Bottom Left: NDBS relief truck ready to go to Gorkha; Bottom right: young people sitting on the ruins of their flattened school.
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Kolkata, May. 11. .  KATHMANDU :    In the face of the enormous human tragedy that resulted from the 7.8 earthquake that flattened much of Nepal on 25 April, the sons and daughters of Don Bosco rose valiantly to the occasion, keeping alive his legacy of compassionate response to the afflicted, a' la Turin's cholera epidemic of 1854, translating their characteristic pastoral charity into speedy and wide-ranging humanitarian assistance.
The scale of devastation and death was of Himalayan proportions: 39 of Nepal's 75 Districts were rocked by the earthquake, 16 of them severely; close to 8000 persons were killed, several thousand more injured, and billions of rupees worth of buildings, cattle, fields ready for harvest, and other property destroyed.

It was indeed a blessing that the earthquake hit on a Saturday, Nepal's weekly public holiday akin to Sunday in much of the rest of the world. Had the earthquake occurred on a working day, the death toll would have more than doubled: it is enough to think of children in their classrooms at 11.55 am on a regular school day!

Salesian Response:

Nepal Don Bosco Society (NDBS) responded with alacrity: from the very next day after the disaster. Fr. Jijo John, Fr. Tony Cherian, Fr. Savio Rai, and the Salesian Sisters next door at Thecho under Sr. Aquila Phawa's leadership, together with a dedicated team of two staff members of the technical school, a Parishioner, the NDBS lawyer and an engineer, fanned out into the neighbouring villages, doing a recce of the damage, being present with the people and distributing very rudimentary aid in the form of biscuits, flat rice, and wai wai noodles, which were immediately available. Then they returned to the same villages in the following days, with larger quantities of provisions: the relief kit per family generally included 25-kg bags of rice, 3 kgs of dal (lentils), 1 litre of cooking oil, 1 kg of salt, 8 biscuit packets, 1 kg of flat rice, and a 18'x15' tarpaulin.  Some alumni and teachers of Don Bosco School, Lubhu also collaborated in the distribution of relief.

Fr. Roman Sikon (from Krakow, Poland), Fr. T.L. Joseph and I arrived from Kolkata a week later as reinforcements. Most of our relief efforts were largely concentrated in the district of Lalitpur in which both our Salesian houses of Thecho and Lubhu are situated.

The reach-out

Whenever we got distressing information about distant villages, we reached out to them with truckloads of the same relief materials.

One such was Tulosilvari, a 4-hour drive away, in Sindhupalchok, the worst affected district that accounted for more than two-thirds of deaths in all of Nepal.   Tulosilvari has 1703 families and suffered 74 deaths, the most being 4 persons in a single family. Two other such villages are Maithalli and Chisopani, in Ramechapp district, with 450 houses. Ramechapp is a 6-hour drive from Kathmandu.

Another such is Muchok in Gorkha District, a village of 943 households that suffered 43 deaths. Muchok is accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles, a gruelling 4-hour drive along a mud road away from the district capital, Gorkha. We reached there after a 4-hour drive from Kathmandu. Muchok is a mere 7 kms away from the epicentre of the earthquake.

Yet another such village is Sorpani with 1230 families, also in Gorkha District, a further 5-hour drive along mud roads from the district capital. In all these villages, almost every structure has collapsed: homes, schools, shops- all razed to the ground.

To these last two villages, the relief materials could be transported only by using tractors- a caravan of 7 of them in both cases.

The Need of the hour

The biggest need right now is not food, but shelter. The farmlands stand ready for harvest, rich with wheat, paddy, maize, and vegetables. Hence, hunger is not an imminent threat. But there is no shelter from the inclement weather. Even a piece of tarpaulin seems like luxury. There were rains in the days immediately after the earthquake, but fortunately, weather has improved much since.  While we were in Tulosilvari, it rained so heavily along with hailstones that even huddled under a parapet we were drenched to the bone.  At dusk when we left the village, we kept wondering how children and old people would spend that night! Worse, the Monsoon Season is just around the corner... and with it widespread landslides are expected.

Human Hurdles, the greater tragedy

If the earthquake has a been a massive disaster, the local government and administrative machinery is trying very hard to be one of equal measure! Confiscation of overseas donations into the central government fund, endless red-tape, complicated documentation formalities, and petty politicking have made us wonder why it is so difficult to do good in this country. Only registered NGOs can distribute relief, and that too, only after getting written permission from the District Magistrate, and then with the authorization of the Panchayat Officer who directs you exactly where to distribute and how much! And these permissions are not the easiest to obtain. The NGO then has to submit to the Panchayat Office the exact records of what was given and to whom! The administration insists that all relief be pooled and distributed centrally by the government. This centralization only slows things down and delays the much needed provisions from reaching the most needy in the more remote villages ... And then there is the cunning opportunist shamelessly lurking at every corner: the soldier at a check post who takes away 7 bags of rice, the petty government functionaries who extract their pound of flesh.... and the king of them all- the double-crosser who was all sweet and honey in one office and then, with the precise information that he had about our stock and delivery point, highjacked three tractor-trailor loads from our caravan en route to a village!!

Graciousness amidst tragedy

But Nepal's saving grace has been its people! The poor in village after village  have truly been an inspiration: their resilience in the face of such a tragedy compounded by an inept government's inaction, their self-respect and grace amid such hopelessness, their patience and readiness to share, their trust in God not to abandon them, their heartfelt gratitude to us for the aid we gave, their appreciation for the fact that we from distant India were there with them in their distress, in fact, even before any representative of their own government/administration had even visited them... In Muchok they wanted to hold a cultural programme to felicitate us and wanted us to stay the night with them and share their food. It was truly touching to think that in the middle of all their loss, they hadn't lost their graciousness and hospitality!  They pleaded with us to help them get back on their feet and to rebuild their lives. They long to have secure housing and schools running again.

The Salesian angst

A Salesian's heart beats for the young. One wonders what future awaits the hundreds of children orphaned by the earthquake. How will thousands of children continue their schooling now that their school buildings lie in ruins? How can they hope to receive the kind of psycho-social care to deal with the multiple levels of trauma they've endured? How will they find hope to sustain themselves? Is it just their houses that are broken or are their dreams shattered too?

Overflowing generosity of donors

In these two weeks since the great earthquake, Nepal Don Bosco Society has reached out to over 30,000 persons (7799 families) in 19 villages of 6 districts and distributed over 100 tonnes of relief materials. Our hands have been empowered and greatly multiplied by the overflowing generosity of donors. Help and promises of more poured in from all parts of the world, coordinated by the Salesian Mission Offices in America, Italy, Germany,  Austria, Australia, China, Korea, Japan... and India, beside donor agencies. Sixty tonnes of food and tarpaulins were sent from India alone across the border at Siliguri funded by the Kolkata Province and some donor agencies.

In every village where we went we made it a point to tell the people about the generosity of donors, and to tell especially young people how students of Don Bosco schools in India, young people like them, have been raising funds and collecting aid to help them.  In carrying out these relief operations, Nepal Don Bosco Society has networked with the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, various religious congregations working  and several NGOS and INGOs working in Nepal.

The Future : Salesian response in three phases

Nepal Don Bosco Society envisions the Salesian response in three phases: Relief, Reconstruction and Sustainability. While the present phase of relief efforts will continue, we will soon begin the reconstruction phase to provide more secure and permanent housing for those who have lost their dwellings, and to help repair damaged houses. Rebuilding schools will be high on the Salesian  agenda. The sustainability phase will include helping to rebuild personal lives and communities through skill training for employability, educational assistance, coaching classes, Self Help Groups and women empowerment.

We had been wondering what gift to give to our Father for the bicentenary of his birth. We feel that he has given us one instead: the opportunity live and love as his proud children - reaching out to the poorest with his passion, sharing the compassion of Jesus. At 200, his heart is beating strong! VIVA DON BOSCO!

[The author is a member of the Salesian community in Kalimpong, Darjeeling, and had volunteered for the relief work in the wake of the earthquake that hit Nepal. He has seen at close quarters the damage done by the natural calamity and been part of the Salesian response to alleviate the pain and suffering of the victims.]

For more photos see the album : Nepal Earthquake  and visit the blog Nepal Earthquake Help .

Editors' Note:


1) FCRA Account
Name and Address of the Bank :  The Federal Bank Lmited,
52 A, Radhanath Chowdhury Road,

Account Number : 12370100063240
IFSC Code : FDRL0001237
Swift Code : FDRL INBB IBD

2) Indian Account
Name of the Account : BOSCONET
Name and Adress of the Bank : HDFC Bank,
Mahavir Enclave,
New Delhi, INDIA

Current Account Number : 50200003052948
IFSC Code: HDFC0000132




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