Bishwas Sharma ’16 awoke on the morning of Saturday, April 25 to a flood of missed calls, text messages, emails and social media notifications alerting him to the news that a massive earthquake had struck his home country of Nepal.
It was hours until he heard anything from his family and friends still in the country.
“I tried to call my parents for what were probably the worst two hours of my life,” Sharma said. “It was an indescribable relief when I heard back from my brother saying they were all safe.”
Not everyone in the country was so lucky. The earthquake, dubbed the Gorkha earthquake after the district where its epicenter was located, registered a 7.8 on the Richter scale. With the death toll above 7,000 at press time and expected to rise to 10,000 or higher, more than 14,000 people injured and many more made homeless, it has become the worst natural disaster to strike Nepal since 1934.
The earthquake leveled entire villages and caused landslides that have severely hindered rescue and relief efforts in rural areas. It triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed 19, making it the deadliest day on the mountain in history. It also devastated the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, where it razed houses and damaged important cultural and historic sites – including parts of Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site – beyond repair.
Sharma was not the only St. Olaf student affected by the earthquake. Feeling cut off from their family and friends on the other side of the world, he and the college’s other Nepali and South Asian students decided that they wanted to find a way to involve the St. Olaf community in the effort to help Nepal recover from the damage of the earthquake.
“Being so far away from home created a sort of survivor’s guilt that we felt would only dull if we did something to help the country that raised us,” Yazmin Moktan ’18 said. “I don’t think a lot of us really sat down to process the emotional trauma this was doing to us. We went straight into work mode and have been quite efficient. I think it helped to distract ourselves.”
The students began by compiling information about the various relief organizations active in Nepal, which they sent to students in several emails to the stolaf-extra alias, in an effort to make St. Olaf community members more intentional about where they choose to donate. Then, on the Monday following the earthquake, the Nepali students held an open meeting of the student organization Celebrate South Asia! at which they shared their stories about the effects of the earthquake and brainstormed ways of contributing to the relief effort.
“We had great attendance at the CSA! meeting,” Sharma said. “And a lot of people sent emails saying they were interested in volunteering if we did fundraisers.”
The students wasted no time, quickly organizing multiple fundraisers for the coming days.
“We talked to Pastor Matt [Marohl] and organized a candlelight vigil on Wednesday,” Sharma said. “Even with such short notice, a lot of people came to the vigil and heard our stories. We raised more than $800 in that one hour alone.”
The students were recognized by the Student Organizations Committee on Friday as an official student organization, called Oles for Nepal. The group’s email alias and Facebook page became a hub for coordinating the relief effort at St. Olaf. Before long, other student organizations began to lend their support.
“We were contacted by the Lion’s Pause team, who had decided to donate all their proceeds from selling pizza on Friday and Saturday to Nepal,” Sharma said. “They have been asking us for suggestions for which organizations they should donate to. We also heard from St. Olaf’s Habitat for Humanity group, which wants to collaborate and help us in promoting our plans.”
The Lion’s Pause fundraiser proved to be a huge success. By the end of the day on Saturday, it had raised $1,772.
“It was our kitchen manager’s idea,” Lion’s Pause Co-coordinator Nathan Hartwig ’15 said. “By the end of Friday night we had already almost met our original goal of $1,000.”
Fundraising on campus continued into the second week after the earthquake, with Oles for Nepal selling momos and Nepali dumplings from Monday, May 4 to Wednesday, May 6. There was also a henna tattoo fundraiser on Thursday and Friday, May 7 and 8. The group is also selling handmade Nepali bags throughout the week and tabling during meal times.
All the proceeds from the fundraising will go directly to some of the most severely affected rural areas in Nepal through the Lincoln School Earthquake Relief Fund, where Moktan’s mother works. Part of the fund will also go to help organizations rebuilding the neighborhood where Bimala Shrestha ’16 lives and the village in the Gorkha District where Deepika Pokharel ’18 grew up.
“This disaster has brought us all closer together as Nepalese,” Sharma said. “But it has also brought together the campus community, which has been a tremendous source of support.”
Photo Credit: ANDREW WILDER/MANITOU MESSENGER