There are nine students who are all working in ISAK’s Project NEPAL to provide post earthquake relief to Nepal through healthcare and education. Within this statement I am reminded of something that makes our group one that is individual. A student led organization, especially one that is led by high schoolers, is something that is hard to come by, and as a result people do not understand that despite our age we take this project seriously. This was the issue that our team ran into when arranging meetings. The struggle we faced was our ability to make organizations understand that our group is capable of leading ourselves. At meetings had to make sure that the questions were not directed at the supervisors advising us. We would come prepared so that our team was always a step ahead. Being a student run organization requires our team to act even more professional and organized if we ever want to be thoughtfully heard by the groups we are workings with. This is a norm, though. As society goes the older a person is, then the more capable they are. However, I have come to realize through ISAK’s Project NEPAL how working for a cause can change not only your life but others as a teenager. While trying to effectively implement a project, students are taught that situations there are not clear, but we face this by providing solutions thought of by a generation that has only begun to leave its imprint on the world. Even as our team is misunderstood, we remind ourselves that we must work to prove the power of youth to make change in the world around us.
With the honest believe that a picture is worth 1000 words, one of my roles throughout our team`s trip to Nepal was to record in images the impact Project Nepal provokes in rural communities. Although exercising this role seemed very easy to me while I was still landing in Japan, my mind quickly changed as soon as I reached Tanahun district where we plan to reconstruct Kihyun Primary School affected by the 2015 earthquake.
My ability to click the button of my camera was blocked by looking at the damaged walls of Kihyun primary school and the instability of the paths that connect the school with the rest of the community. Even though we asked the community to take the pictures and they gave us their consent, I felt no-one to capture their stories with my foreign perspective. While I was looking around, through the camera`s lens, a debate was taking place in my head. A debate that brought memories from my classes in UWC ISAK. I especially remembered history class and how, as historians, I would always prefer to have a picture as visual record to illustrate our past. A photo makes us less dependent on our memory and personal description of individuals. However, at the same time, film class also came to my mind making me aware of the fact photos do not portray reality but an illusion of reality that comes from the photographer point of view. Taking that in consideration, the last thing I wanted was not to honor properly with my frames and with my overseas point of view the reality of children that happily receive us and their mothers who welcomed us with their testimonies.
I then took the decision of changing my photographic plans. I decided to focus on recording other stories that day, in those that i felt the right to tell. My focus was now on the reaction of the members of Project Nepal, in their interaction with the local people. The discovery was that each member showed in their expression pure human solidarity, closely resonating with the problems of the local community. Soon, as I still observe through my camera, there were no foreign and locals anymore, there were just people smiling.
I must accept that, due to the change of plans, I lost the stories, that I had imagined I would tell with my photos. But I gained plenty of others; the ones within the faces of Mayu, Neo, Cristina, Suman, Tony, Ira and Conan, members of Project Nepal being humans.
Following the conclusion of our meeting with various organizations in Kathmandu, our team then split off into two groups, with a four-person team leaving to negotiate the Dr. Car project with the Phul Kumari Mahato Memorial Hospital (PKMMH) in Siraha, located in the southern plains of Nepal. Siraha is one of the least developed regions in Nepal and was greatly affected by the earthquake in 2015, and the main concern that we had for the community’s well-being was the availability to affordable medical services, leading to the inception of the Dr. Car project. After almost two years of planning, fundraising and negotiation, our project finally secured a deal with the Japanese government and was ready to launch the car in Nepal; however, looking back to our vision of sustainability, we had to settle some questions regarding the long-term usage and maintenance of the Dr. Car by the hospital.
The road to the hospital was long and arduous – a nearly seven hour drive from Kathmandu through the narrow, curving mountain roads overseeing cliffs of thousands of meters high. After descending from the hilltops, we were met with the more Indianized version of Nepal, a stark contrast to what we have seen in Kathmandu or Pokhara earlier. After arriving at the hospital, we had a meeting with Dr. Shiv Shankar Shah, one of the doctors at the hospital to discuss about the medical needs of the community and the problems that the hospital is facing right now in order to gain a better understanding of the situation and receive feedback to maximize Dr. Car’s potential usage.
The trip has given us firsthand experience on the hardships of communities living in one of the least developed areas of Nepal, as well as valuable new insight to what our team had overlooked or had not known while planning the project - for instance, when we told the hospital of our intention of providing all medical services for free, they informed us that free services would result in people seeking unnecessary treatment; however, putting a price would result in the opposite and drive people away from the hospital. Facing these problems, this forced our team to suggest and discuss solutions with the hospital on the spot, in which we came up with establishing a quota card system that would be distributed to members of the community. Overall, the trip to Siraha was an eye-opening experience that allowed the four team members to get a deeper understanding of the situation of the project they’ve been working on from afar for years as well as tap into their critical thinking minds to quickly come up with remedies in response to unexpected impracticalities.
The Shree Mangal Dvip school or SMD Boarding School, founded by Thrangu Rinpoche, and run by Shirley Blair for 30 years has provided UWC ISAK with five of the seven Nepali students who have attended or are attending our school now, and are sending one more student for the 2018-2019 school year. Thus far, all the SMD students have been prime UWC ISAK students, especially when it comes to our mission and vision.
During our first Project Nepal visit to Kathmandu, the students from SMD, along with Himanshu Bhurtel and the Bhurtel family, helped all the first timers to Nepal find their way and expedite all aspects of the trip, allowing for the project members to spend their precious little time focused on the work of the project rather than the many hours required to arrange the day to day logistics of operating in Nepal.
For our 2018 Nepal excursion, we have had the benefit of graduated students, current project members, and SMD students to help the group along. The SMD school has finally completed repairs from the 2015 earthquake and is again using the large main building for classes, canteen, library, offices, and performance space. But one thing that was never splintered, broken, damaged was the loving spirit of the students and faculty of SMD.
On my first visit to the school in its damaged state with temporary classrooms made of tin, which roasted in the sun and struggled to hold back the monsoon, I was awe struck with the loving sense of family, which pervaded every aspect of the community. As our initial visit was at the end of the second year of ISAK, our focus in Japan was to create a family feel up on ISAK Hill, and have our own strong sense of community and I hope we emulate this as strongly as SMD.
Understanding how essential a strong head of school is in creating a school culture, you can see in every moment how Shirley is a driving force behind the love pervasive at SMD. Whether she is asking the little ones if they are brushing their teeth after leading them through a meditation session, or dedicating time to seriously listen to a returning graduate tell of their experiences at UWC Nordic, you can see Shirley giving all of her heart to this community.
UWC ISAK Japan has a debt of gratitude owed to Shirley Blair for giving us a handful of her wards to help promulgate the spirit of UWC ISAK Japan. These students continue to be leading lights for our campus from Lhamo initiating Meatless Monday in order to demonstrate her commitment to the preservation of all life, Pema furthering the drama program without a drama teacher and now becoming a regular fixture as emcee of school events, or Dolma meeting everyone everywhere with a smile and her two handed wave as well as serving as the unofficial school babysitter for the kids of the faculty. These SMD Nepalese students are truly important to our community.
With all the support mentioned above, I would encourage members of the UWC ISAK community, from our students to our founders, to consider supporting the SMD Boarding school in any way they can as a way to say thank you for sharing their loving sense of what makes a community with ours at a time when we were formulating our own school culture.
Four days have passed, and we have found ourselves gradually accustomed to the heat and sudden scores of Nepal. Today, we visited Kihyun Primary school, the target of our project to rebuild schools: Project Lotus. The trip to get to Kihyun Primary school was a 2 hour adventure with mud and rocks of the narrow road, as well as rivers. Upon arriving at the school we were honoured to have been greeted by a warm welcome from the children, teachers, parents, and the community. Through our interactions, we were able to hear different personal stories in regards to the school, which made our team be revealed to the differences in circumstances of these students to our own.
“I’m working as a teacher’s assistant while waiting for someone to marry me” said a young girl in Kihyun who was faced with arranged marriage.
The condition of the school was also much different to that we have at our own school. There were no lights to light up the classrooms as well as were huge cracks on the walls. Most basic facilities such as tables and chairs were not in a condition to be used. Drinking water and sewage systems were also not in place.
During this visit to the school, we began to understand the impact that a education could have on children, a community, and well as the future generations of Nepal.
Although Project Lotus mainly focuses on rebuilding the school our visit to Kihyun Primary School made us reaffirm the fact that our ultimate goal is to provide quality education that can empower communities of rural Nepal.
Having spent two weeks in a country as chaotic as Nepal, it seemed impossible not to have found ourselves at some point in an extreme adventure that would stir up the adrenaline in our bodies. Indeed, we lived one of those moments on our way back to the hotel after leaving the school in Tanahun District where our project in being carried out.
Unexpectedly, the rain came down! It was pouring and the water began to descend torrentially from the hills. In a moment, it seemed as if we were floating in a river full of mud. When we least expected it, it happened! There we were, stuck in the mud, fighting against the inclement weather. This was just the beginning of our adventure!
In view of the recent circumstances, Mr. Fitz, Mafer and myself together with the driver went out of the car and began pushing. Our legs were sunk in the mud, which was almost reaching our knees. The wheels spun, splashing mud on us. We were all covered in mud, especially me. Fortunately, we were able to free the car, and continue our way while jolting endlessly as if we were on an airplane with turbulence.
Thinking now about it, living all this made me reflect on how it represented a great experience for me, but for this community, it represented the tough daily life to which they had to forcibly adapt in order to survive.
A few minutes later, we reached a river that we were supposed to cross, but to our surprise, it had grown so much and had become so strong that it made it impossible for the car to pass over. Since I was already soaked and covered almost utterly in mud, the driver asked me to enter the river to check its conditions. I did it! At that time, it was very evident that the current of the water was already strong enough and was gradually becoming deeper. The second car, which implemented a four-wheel steering system, arrived so we thought it would be easier for it to cross the river. It tried, but failed, having crossed most of it, where the engine died without reaching the opposite edge.
And we were all back in the same, pushing the car out of the river. I must admit that having witnessed two Japanese girls in these circumstances, outside their comfort zone, living such an experience that they probably would never have lived in their country, was truly beautiful. That really touched me!
So the current situation was: one car decomposed by water in the engine, and the other trapped by the river on the other side. When not having other options, the latter had to find an alternative way to take us back to the city. Luckily, everything went well, and we managed to cross the river by another route. After this, we met with the other car that could be repaired and we returned home after such an incredible and unforgettable experience.
After living in Japan for half of the year, Nepal seemed as a completely different world with its chaotic traffic, noisy streets and momo cafes everywhere. Even more contrast we saw when we traveled to the Kihyun Primary school. It is located high in the mountains and the time you spend going there depends on the weather that day. The road is on the edge of the cliff, the condition of the road looks even more scary than the cliff itself. Going there was a challenge, and going back when it started raining and the car was getting stuck in the mud and could not cross the river was even a bigger challenge. However, we realised that the people living in that village, and in hundreds of villages all around Nepal, have face it every day, that kids in order to go to school have to hike for some time, that if it rains villagers have to cross a river and walk uphill in the mud. It made me realise that these kinds of villages are the most vulnerable after the earthquake, and we are helping people who need it.
Arriving in Nepal after a rough journey; 15th June 2018, on a foggy morning our van was delayed due to the traffic jam.
Despite of the hurdles, we met with a startup business that has expertise in making interlocking bricks. Eco cell industries has recently been listed in Forbes Asia's 30 under 30 list of young entrepreneurs; a startup business devoted in manufacturing eco-friendly, earthquake resistant bricks that can be made using a composition of local soil and cement.
ISAK's Project Nepal primarily focuses on infrastructure projects and meeting with eco cell industries broadened our views on sustaining projects by using raw materials and providing training to local community on using Eco cell’s machines to produce bricks.
We felt that sweat labour required during the production of the bricks will allow the community to care and value the project.