Through social networks – online, on campus and face-to-face – Nepalis abroad bridge distances after quake

Anupa was born in the U.S. just a few months after her parents and older brother emigrated from Nepal. Throughout her childhood and teen years, the time she spent visiting Nepal was integral to the development of her identity. “Splitting my time has left me with deep connections both to my 40+ first cousins (who live both in Western Nepal and Kathmandu) and to the physical surroundings,” she writes. Despite growing up in the U.S., Anupa still identifies as a Nepali immigrant like her parents. “Being a Nepali has been a strong compass for everything I’ve chosen to pursue, both personally and academically,” she says. She maintained a connection to Nepal through her work with a public health non-profit, which works internationally and partners with local NGOs in Nepal, as well as through involvement with tight-knit Nepali communities in the United States.

It was this attachment to Nepal that sparked Anupa’s fears two years ago when she read an article predicting the level of devastation if a high-magnitude earthquake was to hit the country. The study’s dire predictions haunted her, and for a time she was plagued with nightmares and distracted by worry. Anupa shared the article with as many Nepali friends as she could, and eventually the anxiety subsided. Two years later, on April 25th, Anupa’s fears came true when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal.

Anupa has often used social media to feel connected to Nepal and to her family members living across the globe, and Facebook was the first place she went to find out if her relatives were safe. Anupa’s parents live on the West Coast, and because of the time difference, they got word of the earthquake before they went to sleep. Her mother immediately began trying to get in touch with her family members. While Anupa slept across the country, unaware that disaster had struck, her mother was able to track down almost everyone on her side of the family through phone calls – except for one person. Anupa says that upon waking up and hearing news of the quake from her parents, she immediately “took to Facebook, started scouring posts, statuses, looking for last noted activity.” Her detective work paid off, and a post from a neighbor of the last unaccounted family member confirmed that all of her mother’s relatives were safe.

Her father wasn’t so sure. He is one of 10 siblings, each of whom has adult children and grandchildren – and the idea of checking in with each and every family member was overwhelming. But a cousin in Australia had already tracked down most family members via phone and Facebook, and Anupa was able to get in touch with the last of them. In those first hours after the quake, she could pursue as much information as possible online without worrying about tying up phone lines or draining the mobile phone batteries of relatives in Nepal.

After tracking down relatives, Facebook served another purpose for Anupa. It was by reading statuses and seeing photos that the devastation in Nepal began to become real to her. At first, information was vague and photos difficult to come by. But photos of the ruins of Dharahara Tower – a landmark built in 1832 that to Anupa and many Nepalis symbolized national strength and the county’s rich cultural history – in her Facebook newsfeed hit her particularly hard. “The image of the fallen Dharahara tower was the moment when I started to cry, and continued to cry as I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled,” she said. In the weeks since the quake, Facebook has been a “lifeline,” allowing her to check in on relatives and “not feel completely powerless.”

Sunil, a young Nepali man who moved to the U.S. to study at Howard University, also says that an image of Dharahara appearing to be “just a stump” was one of the first photos he saw after the earthquake hit. Up late on a Friday night scrolling through his friends’ Facebook posts, he began to see photos of various ancient cultural landmarks reduced to ruins. “Hundreds of years old monuments and legacy of our civilization was lost. It was truly painful,” he writes. These early photos of damaged buildings and temples, often reposted over and over by Nepalis in and outside the country, couldn’t paint a full picture of the extent or nature of the earthquake’s effects, but they made it easy to assume what the rest of the region might look like.

For many Nepali living abroad like Sunil, the inundation of images and news from Nepal via social media has been both helpful and paralyzing, often providing general information instantly, but leaving the viewer with feelings of powerlessness when specifics are out of reach. And in the aftermath of a natural disaster, those who may desperately need to communicate are often unable to access communication technology due to lack of internet access, overburdened mobile networks, and damaged landlines. Within just ten minutes of the quake, Sunil’s computer screen was flooded with information about damage in Kathmandu – but he knew nothing about the well-being of his parents who live in a suburb of the city. The images and news from Facebook sent him into a panic, and he was unable to reach anyone by phone until hours later when a neighbor confirmed his close family was safe.

Even more concerning was the lack of information from the rural districts outside the Valley, where most of Sunil’s relatives live. The next day, he was again overwhelmed by what he describes as “news of thousands of people dying, watching the videos of people crying over the dead bodies of their loved ones, the pictures showing the pain and agony of people.” Without any information, he could only assume the worst about the status of the small, rural village where he spent his early years and where most of his relatives remain today. As news of utter devastation outside of Kathmandu began to spread, viral videos surveying the damage only fed his worst fears. “I cried imagining what my village would look like,” says Sunil. Eventually, he began to hear stories from family members. The majority of the houses in the village were destroyed, and all of his relatives left homeless. Many who were already living in poverty have lost their livelihood and savings. With the monsoon season coming, Sunil fears that relief materials are running out and that his relatives will have little to protect them from the elements.

Because Sunil is one of a small group of Nepali students at his university, he received support from both fellow students and the university administration after news of the earthquake spread. He felt that the administration provided as much of a support system as possible – from postponing final exams to offering counseling and encouraging the general student body to donate to earthquake relief efforts for which the Nepali students began to fundraise. “They listened to our painful stories and expressed sympathy to the country and the people,” he says, noting that the President of Howard even met with a group of Nepali students to offer condolences.

Despite often feeling frustrated by his inability to provide relief to his family’s village, Sunil’s work to fundraise for emergency relief allowed him to feel connected to efforts on the ground. And the disaster leaves him feeling even more intent on returning to Nepal after he graduates from college when he will have gained technical experience in social planning and international development. He is confident that now, more than ever, Nepal needs to strengthen its infrastructure in the energy and education sectors, and he plans to be a part of this regrowth.

Anupa’s non-profit work has enabled her to help coordinate support for relief and recovery efforts and to “feel in some way like we were part of a response.” Fairly quickly, she was a part of strategic calls with her coworkers to determine how her organization would act in the aftermath of the earthquake, and she continues to work on ways to draw attention to recovery efforts. While Anupa’s work helps to remove some feelings of powerlessness, she has also found it important to engage socially with other Nepalis where she lives in New York. By seeking community, she feels that she has been able to “at the very least, find others who are feeling the same sense of isolation and sorrow.”

While migration experts speak with apprehension about the growing number of young people leaving Nepal for jobs elsewhere, a number that was already high pre-earthquake, many like Anupa and Sunil are pulling closer to the country. By becoming increasingly invested in Nepal’s future, these Nepalis have found a way to overcome feelings of powerlessness despite the distance. Sunil explains it this way: “I had a dream that one day I would return to my homeland and innovate something for my country. Now, the love is even stronger as I realize they need more help.”

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