As a humanitarian worker, I have been on the ground during or in the wake of several disasters. Let me tell you one thing I know: ‘hopeful’ is not a word I would use to describe the situation. When catastrophe strikes, the sight, sounds and smell of devastation, of loss, and of grief surround us.
We see the destroyed homes, the people wearing slings to protect injuries, some searching for loved ones. We see those that did not make it, carried out from the rubble by solemn rescuers.
We hear the tapping of hammers as displaced families drive the wooden pegs of a rudimentary shelter into the ground in a land unfamiliar, far from home.
We smell the acrid air, thick with dust and smoke across cities and towns shaken to the ground by the rumbling of the earth.
Ever-present, yet never seen, heard or smelt are the psychological impacts on the people whose lives have changed overnight. Many experience a rollercoaster of emotions – from incredible unity as communities come together to support one another in desperate times, to heavy isolation and anxiety.
On the frontlines are local humanitarian workers – inspiring people who live through the disaster themselves and carry the double-burden of caring for their own family who have been affected and responding to the immense needs of their community.
These local humanitarians have shown me that in these difficult times, the seeds of hope for a better tomorrow are sown.
After the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal in 2015, I was involved in a Medair project that rebuilt 1,312 homes. In total over 600,000 homes, 5,000 schools and 1,000 clinics and hospitals were severely damaged or destroyed. Our work focused on ‘building back better’ – incorporating earthquake-resilient construction features that would keep families safe. We also made sure that houses had adequate ventilation for good indoor air quality, and that families had access to a safe and hygienic toilet. Most rewarding about the project is that homeowners were trained in these building techniques and constructed their own homes. Over 600 local community members trained as skilled masons, learning a trade that they could use going forward.
Neighbours helped neighbours; the labour-sharing concept of ‘armah parmah’ has been used in farming for generations. After the earthquake it was applied to helping one another rebuild the centre of family life – their home. It took everyone to rebuild the community. On one particularly memorable day, walking through the hive of activity with Kripa and Arjun, two of Medair’s Nepali engineers, I came to realise that out of disaster, however devastating, something positive can happen.
Kripa explained that because everyone had suffered from the earthquake, social status was suddenly being put aside. The Dalit caste, long viewed as ‘untouchable’ trained and became masons alongside others, earning a living in ways that would not have been possible before the earthquake.
Along the way, we met Kul Bahadur Magar, who despite being blind was busy constructing his 39th house. Magar had a wide grin as he explained how he measured the stones with his hands, cut them to size and put them into place. He was proud of his skills, and the community now recognised what he could contribute.
Winding our way around the steep terraced hillsides, Arjun led me to Dolma, a woman well into her 80s, with one good eye and a little bit of hearing. Like students in a classroom, we sat in front of Dolma beside her recently completed house. She explained: “I did a lot of it myself, see? I even plastered the walls!” The fine mud-mortar reached five feet up the wall, much like her own height. As her husband joined, she continued: “We thought we were too old to start again.”
Everyone I met shared in one way or another about how the reconstruction was a healing process. Strained relationships were reconciled and people united around a common goal. The physical work and camaraderie helped the community process the trauma of what they had experienced. Many shared that, despite the tragedy they had endured, life after the earthquake had improved.
I am confident that tomorrow will be a better day because of the contributions of local humanitarians like Kripa and Arjun who will continue to contribute to their country’s development. I am confident because of people like Magar, who made an extraordinary contribution to rebuilding his community, stone by stone; and because of people like Dolma, who showed me that there is always a future if you never give up.
Medair is an international humanitarian NGO that provides emergency relief and recovery services to families made vulnerable by natural disasters, conflicts, and other crises. This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.