It’s been 6 weeks since I came back to Kathmandu from my break. I was out of Nepal when the 25th April earthquake hit. I learnt about the earthquake in a casual conversation with friends of friends around a dinner table in Capadokya, Turkey. Like many people living abroad, I started looking for information online and on social media. Images of the Dharara tower in ruins, temples of the Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Square were the first I saw. I was devastated.
I have lived in Nepal on and off for a total of about 3 years. I moved back last year in July as Coordinator of Mental Health Department for an International NGO. I moved back because I wanted to live in Nepal, I love Nepal and am emotionally attached to the country. On my flight back I had a heavy heart, fearful about what I was going to discover. Strangely enough when I arrived in Kathmandu on 28th April, everything seemed to be bizarrely normal. Yes, there were people living in tents, but shops had opened and on the way from the airport back home to Jhamsikhel, I didn’t see that much destruction.
Part of my job now was to elaborate a mental health and care practices strategy in Kathmandu Valley and some affected districts. I went around the city trying to assess needs and areas where we could work. I didn’t realise what I was going to find out there but also within me. Visiting hospitals, ‘camps’ listening to people’s stories has been to say the least life changing. I think I can safely say that no single event has transformed my perception of humanity as this has. And this is only normal, earthquakes, the devastation it can bring and the fear and panic created by the aftershocks is not something everyone will experience in their lifetimes.
Though I cannot articulate clearly enough right now, I feel changed. Working as a psychologist in the context of disaster in a country I love has been an incredible human experience. I am still evolving.. like the people who have been displaced and have lost family members and property and all those who have been affected by the earthquake, I am evolving. My values, my priorities, my goals, my personality is evolving. Sometimes I am sure that the experience has made me stronger and other times I am not sure. It has transformed my perception of humanity and community and its resources.As a psychologist, no university education could prepare me for this. Few psychologists I have met and worked with have seen so many families and people who have lost so much. This is not a common experience even for a mental health professional. There are some resources but not many can tell you how to work with families who have lost several family members, all their belongings and are living in an environment nothing like their own. Families in several parts of Nepal live with the everyday threat of their village being wiped out by a landslide a month after the first earthquake. The second earthquake on 12th May made things a lot worse – the devastation but also people’s resilience. It is difficult to reassure oneself that we have really survived when the threat of another earthquake or landslide is not really absent! How do we build hope amidst this? How to we build resilience? This is a time for humility and learning, understanding that we do not know all, we cannot know all, we can only try to do our best.
The only answer I have found in the communities I have been with is service, finding meaning, belonging and social links. This is what helps you survive – helping your community survive and rebuild, helping your family cope, forget and relive, this seems to be the key to resilience in moments of extreme distress and uncertainty.
I can’t help but wonder, what of those who don’t necessarily find their resilience in communities and social links, those who need to find it within. Those of us whose pools of energy within have been affected, have to sit by and let those pools cleanse themselves. We have to watch the cleansing process, painful as it may be, try hard and still not find the energy we need, and live with it. Believe that it will take the time it needs, but cleansing will happen, we will find that energy within again and we will be renewed.