Ever since a catastrophic earthquake hit Nepal in April 2015, the entire Tamang family has been living in a “cottage.” A local engineer determined that their original house, built 60 years ago Manegau village 15 miles east of Kathmandu, was in danger of collapse if another earthquake hit.
But what is defined as a cottage in Manegau is far from the comfortable dwelling you might imagine. It is actually a two- square-meter tin structure, into which the four family members – a young couple and their children – cramp together every night. Twenty-five of the village’s 40 families live, like the Tamangs, in similar tin structures. And it’s not clear when, if ever, they will be able to return to their old home.
One year after the disaster in which more than 9,000 people were killed, millions of Nepalese are still struggling to deal with the consequences of the most powerful earthquake to hit Nepal in 80 years. “You can feel that the earthquake is still affecting the family today,”’ says Dana Harel, 26, an Israeli volunteer in Manegau village who has been living with the Tamang family for the past month. “One night as I was cooking dinner, I saw the father of the family running hysterically and shouting ‘earthquake!’ It turned out that there was an earthquake, a very small one that I didn’t even feel. That made me realize how deep the people’s trauma actually is.”
In a sense, the earthquake is why I found myself in Managua to begin with. Around a month ago I landed in Nepal as part of a long trip to Asia, and the desire to learn about the repercussions of the earthquake led me to volunteer in the village in a program run by the Israeli-Jewish organization Tevel B’tzedek. The organization was founded by Rabbi Micha Odenheimer with the aim of creating a bridge between the Jewish people and the extreme poor in the developing world. Tevel B’tzedek has been working in Nepal since 2007, and runs several volunteering programs for Jews and Israelis in different districts and villages — which are intended to supplement the work of more than 110 Nepali staff and volunteers, including agronomists, social workers and education experts.
Among the Jewish volunteer programs is the program in Managua, in which many of the volunteers are young travelers like me. “Eleven years ago I was traveling with my family in India and stumbled upon the ‘hummus trail’ for the first time – the route that many young Israelis travel through in Asian countries,” says Rabbi Odenheimer, “I realized that there were many high quality young people travelling in India and elsewhere. They are already in the developing world, and many of them want to learn more about the challenges of global poverty and environmental devastation and to contribute their energy and goodwill to people in the places they travel in. Tevel B’tzedek gives them the opportunity to do that in a Jewish-Israeli context.”
Turning a disaster to an opportunity
There is no running water in Manegau village, and the electricity only works for a few hours a day, as in the rest of Nepal. During our month of volunteering in the village, we live in people’s houses and work together with them to develop different fields of endeavor in the village, such as education, agriculture and construction. Our work in these fields stems from the organization’s approach, which aims to give the community the tools, institutions and leadership it needs in order to keep developing after the 4-5 year term of the project.
Even though Tevel B’tzedek has worked in Managua for more than three years now, it appears that the disaster that struck the community gave additional meaning to the organization’s work in the village. “The earthquake was a difficult event that made us appreciate the organization’s contribution,” says 17-year-old Nabes, who lost his house during the earthquake. “The volunteers that were here after the earthquake helped us to build tents and organize food for people. To get that kind of help during those hard days was very meaningful for us, and it gave us the needed motivation to rebuild our village in the period directly after the quake.”
The motivation that Nabes was talking about is evident in the physical structures of the village. One example is the village community center, a deserted building that was rebuilt by the community over the past year; two homework clubs were established in it for the village’s children. “Following the earthquake people understood how much they can gain out of the organization’s presence,” says Durga Tamang, 27, who has worked in the village as a staff member for the past two years. “We created a lot of projects with the community members over the past year, more than we had created beforehand. In that sense, at least, the earthquake created opportunities alongside the difficulties.”
One of these opportunities is the surprising change in the status of the village’s women. Many women in Nepal don’t receive adequate education and are forced to work much harder than men, never gaining the same social status. The women’s contribution to the relief efforts in the days that followed the earthquake, together with a number of women empowerment projects activated in the village over the past year, gave the community a greater appreciation of the importance of strengthening women’s position. “The earthquake was a real opportunity for the women of Managua”’ says Saru Regmi, a 24-year-old community member who participates regularly in the meetings of the women group, created by Tevel B’tzedek. “Today I look back on the earthquake differently, in a more positive way. I feel that I changed over the past year because I understood the responsibility I have in helping my community recover.”
At the end of a very intense month we finished our volunteer period in the village, and now I am about to go on to the rest of my trip. Whether I want to or not, it seems that the way my group members and I perceive our trip has changed after this experience. “I remember that after volunteering, people I met along my trip suddenly looked different,” says Iftach Assael, a 24-year-old Israeli who volunteered in Managua during the time of the earthquake and is now the group facilitator for the volunteers. “All of a sudden I realized that everyone has a story. That the Nepali guesthouse owner that I meet is also a person with a family and dreams, who may have come from a similar village to the one I volunteered in. I think it’s an insight that the volunteers gain for the rest of their lives, no matter where they go.”