Healing hearts in the quiet of Kathmandu

It’s now quieter in Kathmandu.

Following a month of chaos, I’m relieved to finally find a quiet moment to sit down and reflect.

I’ve seen so much death and destruction that it feels like a period of mourning.   The first thirty days (Shloshim) is an important cycle of time in Judaism.  It marks the first stage of a mourner’s experience.  It’s a time for reflection, a time to come to grips with a new reality but also a time for renewal.

The streets of Kathmandu are no longer lined with hundreds of international medical and relief teams or the media for that matter.  The colorful ‘circus,’ as it’s often called, has to a great extent left town.

And now the real work begins.

Yotam Polizer assess the damages.  Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID
Yotam Polizer assess the damages. Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID
The work begins.  Photo: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID
Quiet streets. ( Photo: IsraAID)

IsraAID takes a more holistic approach to the work of ‘saving lives and alleviating suffering’.  Basic supplies, food, water, medicine and shelter are critical, but they’re simply not enough.

In fact, one of the biggest tragedies of any disaster is not always obvious to the untrained eye.  Scenes of cracked, collapsed and destroyed homes steal the spotlight in the first few weeks.  Yet those who stick around recognize that the surrounding destruction is a powerful metaphor for the way people feel inside.

A month on, I can’t help but think about some of the incredible people I’ve met who have found the strength to speak up and share their feelings of pain, sorrow and loss.

Given my background in Psycho-Social Support (PSS) programming, I constantly remind people that ‘trauma is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation’.

In fact, it’s become a kind of mantra that has spread to people in different corners of the world where IsraAID works.  From the Tsunami victims in Japan, to North Korean refugees in South Korea and more recently, to Ebola survivors in West Africa – this statement holds true.

It’s clear that the psychological and social impacts brought about by disasters may be most severe in the short term, but they can also undermine the long-term mental health and psychosocial well-being of an affected population. A key priority for IsraAID is then to protect and improve people’s mental health and psycho-social well-being early on and during all stages of a response.

This mantra took on a whole new meaning during one of our earlier Psycho-Social planning meetings in Kathmandu.  The tables were turned as I had to personally grapple with an ‘abnormal’ situation- the second earthquake on May 12th that caught me completely off guard.

Looking back, I now realize that I experienced many of the ‘normal’ reactions of shock and momentary panic together with tens of thousands of Nepalese who (unlike me) were still traumatized from the first quake.  Although everyone had grown accustomed to the powerful aftershocks, the second earthquake certainly qualified as another ‘abnormal’ or more accurately, ‘terrifying’ situation which needs to be processed.

Yet, one woman summed it up best.  Near the ruins of her home, I met a women name Parvati.

In a remote village in the Sindupalchowk region of the Himalayans, I went house to house assessing damages and mobilizing people who needed medical attention.  This close-knit community lost 105 members and every single home was severely damaged or destroyed.

Parvati.  Photo: IsraAID
Meeting Parvati  in the ruins of her home.  (Photo: IsraAID)

I asked Parvati if she needed any medical help and pointed out IsraAID’s medical clinic.

She replied that she could manage with her physical pain, but what she needed urgently was ‘healing for the heart’.

Parvati’s daughter was killed and still buried somewhere under the wreckage.

We spoke for over 20 minutes and I then invited her to visit our clinic.  Although she seemed physically fine, being with other people, sharing and talking could help as well.

In fact, IsraAID’s Psycho-Social Support (PSS) services are a crucial component of all our emergency work and compliment our medical and relief work as well.  Several local nurses and community outreach workers joined our team following a series of training sessions conducted by IsraAID PSS specialists from Israel and Japan.

In just the last few weeks, IsraAID has trained well over 350 service providers both in Kathmandu and in the rural areas.  Our focus is on long term training and supervision for local service providers such as nurses, social workers, government employees, community leaders  international and local non-governmental aid organization professionals and counselors.

We have even trained school teachers who now need to face traumatized children once school re-opens this week for the first time.

IsraAID Conducts Psycho-Social Support Training for Teachers in Kathmandu.  (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID Conducts Psycho-Social Support Training for Teachers in Kathmandu. (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID teacher training Psycho-Social Support program in Kathmandu.  (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID teacher training Psycho-Social Support program in Kathmandu. (Photo: IsraAID)

Our ‘helping the helpers’ approach offers a more sustainable and community based method which will help to ensure that more people are able to receive long term care and emotional support, even in the most remote part of the Himalayas.

We’ve even established the very first ‘Help Hotline’ in Nepal together with a local NGO which provides emotional support to anyone who needs it.  This is a perfect example of Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) where the suffering and distress experienced in a disaster can actually lead to tremendous growth and opportunity as well.

Yet to reach the masses, IsraAID is focusing on community theatre, traditionally one of the most effective ways to deliver social messages in Nepal, particularly in remote areas where access to television and internet is still so scarce.

Together with talented local actors and partners, three different plays have been developed which are travelling around delivering PSS messages to thousands of survivors including children, youth, parents and the elderly.

The opening scene begins the day after the April 25th earthquake.  Various coping methods are portrayed through six different characters that represent a cross section of society. The actors demonstrate that most of the feelings and emotions such as stress, anxiety, fear, sadness and anger are ‘normal’ reactions to an ‘abnormal’ situation.

IsraAID Community Theatre & Psycho-Social Programs  (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID Community Theatre & Psycho-Social Programs (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID Community Theatre (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID Community Theatre (Photo: IsraAID)

The play is really just the starting point, a trigger for a much deeper discussion.  At the end of the play, the actors mobilize the audience and smaller support groups are formed, facilitated by trained counselors.

The feedback from the audience has been overwhelmingly positive.  Mothers are enjoying the open and honest conversations; older audiences have said they feel motivated by the elderly characters who lead and offer words of wisdom; fathers have gained perspective by taking a step back and watching how others cope in a time of stress.

Yet, one of the most constructive feedback received came from a young girl who, reflecting on the new reality, expressed she would really like to see a disabled character in the play as well.

One of our key target audiences is of course children whose homes and lives were turned upside down.  Our plays provide much needed structure and unity to an otherwise chaotic period.  Clearly, children also gain much from moments of silly, comic relief and subsequent support.

IsraAID Community Theatre (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID Community Theatre (Photo: IsraAID)
IsraAID Community Theatre
IsraAID Community Theatre  (Photo: IsraAID)
(Photo: IsraAID)
(Photo: IsraAID)


And so, in the quiet of the night, I find a moment to indulge in a bit of social media.

I’ve had many new Facebook ‘friend requests’ from Nepal and I notice from the posts that I’m not the only one writing and reflecting on the difficult month that has just past.

Sumi, an extraordinary and inspiring 16 year old we met during IsraAID’s Search and Rescue operation, has kindly agreed that I share her latest post.

In her words:

I was recently saved from the mouth of death due to the earthquake.


This bloody thing swiped everything from me- my uncle, my neighbors, my books my belongings and even some of my dreams.


I used to think I don’t have the right to dream or aim ‘high’. But now I feel like even though my belongings and loved ones are not with me, I am not going to let this [disaster] take away my emotional strength and beautiful dreams which have yet to be completed.


I never realized that I also had the strength to resist the pain of losing loved ones.  Some of them named me, some of them tamed me, some of them were the ones whom I used to see every morning, every afternoon and evening.  Some of them were the ones who used to stay next door to me.


Forgetting my own pain, I pay my heartfelt condolences to all of them.”

…From the quiet of Kathmandu.

About the Author
Yotam Polizer is the CEO of IsraAID – Israel’s biggest humanitarian NGO. Founded in 2001, IsraAID has worked in more than 60 countries, helping people affected by crisis re-build their lives, their communities, and their futures, together. Following the September 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, he led IsraAID’s humanitarian mission in Lesbos, Greece, to support Syrian refugees on the island and also established IsraAID Germany, which provides long-term support for Yazidi and Syrian refugees in Germany. During the last 10 years, Polizer has also built and led humanitarian aid programs in Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and in South Korea to support the reintegration of North Korean defectors. He has also led missions in Nepal following the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and in Sierra Leone for Ebola survivors, health workers, and affected communities. He has more than 10 years’ experience in education, humanitarian aid, and international development
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