Monday, July 27, 2015

Phil Johnstone from New Zealand shares his experience of removing rubble for earthquake-affected families together with young local volunteers

What a privilege to spend a day clearing rubble with an enthusiastic group of socially-minded Nepali student volunteers. 

My first experience as a Habitat volunteer was possibly the dustiest day of my life.  It was poignant to work alongside the owners of homes destroyed by the earthquake of 25 April 2015.  It’s hard to fathom what it must be like to see the home you have lived in for 60 years reduced to a pile of bricks, stones, wood, mud and scattered possessions. 

But from start to finish, the energy, positive attitude and fun displayed by my 25 fellow volunteers turned a long, hot July day into an unexpectedly joyous experience.

Phil Johnstone works alongside other volunteers during Habitat for Humanity Nepal’s rubble removal activity in Sankhu, Kathmandu district on 3 July 2015. (Habitat for Humanity Nepal/Sameer Bhattarai)

We assembled on 3 July at around 9.30am in the badly damaged village of Sankhu, Kathmandu district, a 45-minute drive north-east of the capital Kathmandu.  A majority of buildings lay flattened – with rubble piled high amidst half-collapsed walls.

Roughly half the volunteer group were female first-year university students – social work majors doing a Bachelor of Public Health degree. The rest were guys – either still in high school or in their first semester at university. We geared up with gloves, hard hats and masks, and following a group photo and a safety briefing, the work began.

I spent the morning on the first floor of a house, removing what remained of two walls that used to support a now non-existent roof.  A small proportion of the bricks were suitable for re-use and these were carefully passed to volunteers at ground level and stacked. The walls were devoid of reinforcing, and bricks seemed to be only held together by mud. Little wonder these traditional houses proved no match for the two major quakes that took over 8,800 lives.

Fortunately for me, this rubble-clearing day featured a special lunch – a thank-you treat marking the last day of work by local volunteers, mobilized by Habitat for Humanity Nepal since the first earthquake on 25 April, before the monsoon kicked in.
Out came the mobile phones and the selfie stick, and our group was like any bunch of laughing, excitable young people on a shared mission. 
(Above, foreground) Bhumika Parajuli clears debris from a destroyed house. (Below, in pink) Home owner Mangal Maya Malla, 60, with volunteers and Habitat staff who helped her save wood and bricks from her destroyed home. (Habitat for Humanity Nepal/Phil Johnstone)
Over lunch, high school student Ezekiel Rai, 19, explained why he and his friends Simon and Ismayal have chipped in on all 20 volunteer days.  “Our exams had finished, and we are the youth.  If we don’t take a step to help, that wouldn’t be good.  It has been hard work but when we build a shelter and see a family move in, we feel proud and have joy in our hearts to have helped our country.”

Similarly, Bhumika Parajuli, 19, is driven by a strong sense of community connection.  “I’m a public health student so it’s my duty to serve the public,” she said.  “Doing this work with Habitat is our way to express what we aspire to do in public health in the future. This has been the best experience for us.”

My afternoon was spent pulling out wood and bricks from a pile of rubble that used to be the two-story home of Mangal Maya Malla, 60.  Unmarried, Mangal had lived in the house all her life.  She spent the day working alongside the volunteers – stacking bricks and pitching in with various digging tools.

“It’s a difficult task for these young people but it’s great for me.  I was helpless but today I am not alone.  I am so grateful.”

Her words capped a tiring yet inspiring day. Thanks, Habitat, for helping people left homeless by Nepal’s earthquakes, and enabling a new generation to step up and contribute.   

Phil Johnstone is a New Zealand public relations consultant who is working toward a career as a disaster and conflict zone communicator.


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