Angels in Nepal: One Year After the Earthquakes

An Angel in Nepal ~ One Year on from the Nepal Earthquakes, Kathmandu - Save the Children Hong Kong-1

Peering out the makeshift door of her corrugated metal shelter, Parathi lets the warm, soft rays of the sun tangle up around her welcoming in another day.

A gentle breeze rocks the entranceway of their shelter providing a soft melody for her two autistic children sleeping peacefully behind her. The few minutes of silence brings a smile along with a chance to relax before the chaos of a new day begins.

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She picks up her broom and quickly begins tidying up their simple shelter with a touch of longing for their old home they had just one year ago.

One year ago…devastating earthquakes rocked Nepal, the first on April 25th and the second on May 12th with tremors shaking the tenuous foundation of life for the Nepalese people.

The destruction was catastrophic: 9,000 people died, 600,000 homes destroyed, and damage estimated at $10 billion. To add insult to such devastation, over the past year political infighting has frozen $4.1 billion in emergency aid funds.

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Nepal now finds itself paralyzed with one natural disaster (the earthquake) feeding into another manmade disaster (political pettiness), creating dangerous aftereffects such as human trafficking, disease, deteriorating health, debt and a faltering educational system set to further cripple the country.

Amid the chaos, however, there has been one constant: organizations who have stepped in to support communities. To rebuild. To give hope. To provide an opportunity for a future.

An incredible thing to witness and Save the Children has stepped up in Nepal.

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The light of the morning is just as I imagined it would be ~ the first rays of the sun stretching out over the city, giving off a magical hue. Off to the northeast, the sunrise sparkles off the snow-capped Himalaya mountain range welcoming in a new day.

A breathless start to the morning, and in this dreamlike state I let my imagination run wild here in Kathmandu.

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Nepal’s rich history has been fueled by imagination, from explorers to philosophers pulled in by the natural scenery. All one needs to understand this feeling is to look into the powerful eyes of its people.

Strength. Curiosity. A spirituality seeking the greatness in a day.

From Sherpas attacking the slopes of the Himalayas to the children playing in the fields, every day is a reminder of their home, a slice of heaven on earth. Even with the tragedy of the past year, the Nepalese keep moving forward.

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The morning sun flows through the room, its rays mixing with the youthful laughter and smiles ~ students sit mesmerized by the sight of a beautiful stranger in their midst.   Giggles are hard to stifle as they listen to this ‘Angel from Hong Kong’ sharing pieces of a life so foreign yet so wonderful.

The glimmer in their eyes shows the admiration, inspiration, and appreciation for those who step forward offering an opportunity where before there was none.

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Mrs. Cathy Chui Lee (徐子淇) is the first Asian patron of Save the Children, joining three other Princesses: Princess Anne in the UK, Princess Viktoria in the Netherlands, and Princess Basma in Jordan: their quest to provide safety and opportunity to children around the world to reach their potential.

This is especially true for those most marginalized, deprived and facing a humanitarian crisis.

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An Angel in Nepal ~ One Year on from the Nepal Earthquakes, Kathmandu - Save the Children Hong Kong-9

The shattered buildings we see as we weave our way through the historic Durbar Square in Bhaktapur is unsettling, reflecting the shattered lives of those in the area.

The beauty of the place shows off a rich heritage. Elegant architecture surrounds our every step, punctuating the culture of the Nepalese. Yet there is a reminder. Every dozen meters there is a jarring jolt of destruction left by the powerful quake and the sad reality of the work still to be done.

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Cathy’s visit to these devastated areas of Nepal allows her to see first hand the difference aid organizations make in the lives of children and their families.

The visit also gives Cathy the opportunity to directly engage with the children, offering the value of both her donation and time to bring sunshine into a difficult period of their lives.

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Of all the incredible moments I have seen, the most beautiful sight of the day is the excitement in the eyes of the children being matched by the wonder and sincerity in the eyes of Cathy.

Her ease with the children makes it clear, as much as Cathy inspires the children – she draws even more strength and inspiration from them.

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The day has been full of emotions. From the excitement in the laughter and words of the children to understanding the difficult road ahead for the people of Nepal, bringing to mind an old Nepalese proverb, one often used around the world as well:

खाने मुखलाई जुंगाले छेक्दैन    ~ Where there is a will, there is a way ~

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The melody and rhythm of traditional Nepalese folk songs float through the small classroom and Amy Fong, CEO of Save the Children Hong Kong, blends right in singing along with her new-found friends.

“We are very honored and excited to have Cathy Lee as our patron. We admire her compassion for children and her willingness to actively make a difference in their lives.” Amy mentions this as we watch the students draw the Nepalese flag on Cathy’s hand, a souvenir for her to take back to Hong Kong.

“There is still so much to do, and rising to the challenge is where we will make the greatest difference…” and I could not agree more.

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The sun, beginning its descent into another night, pauses ever so slightly on the horizon sensing a special moment: the coming together of two uniquely wonderful angels here in Nepal.

On our last stop of the day, there is a surreal feeling as we watch spellbound as Parathi and Cathy sit outside the shelter and talk of the daily hardship.

While Parathi is still stuck in a temporary shelter and lacking income, there is no sign of distress or worry. Instead, her strength and integrity shine through when she speaks of the future she can create for her children and how Save the Children has helped make this possible.

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Cathy softly holds Parathi as they connect on a level I imagine only two mothers can. An intense amount of empathy and respect for each other is apparent, and I sit back amazed at how two people so far apart in terms of material wealth can almost be mirror images of each other when it comes to strength of character.

Is there something in the air of Nepal?

It is hard not to shed a tear at the wisp of magic traveling upon the breeze this evening, proof of how powerfully connected we all are to each other.

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I pack up my equipment and think back to the words silently whispered by the Angel in Nepal as she was overcome with emotion after the meeting, “Such a strong and brave woman, I admire her so much…”

The admiration I have for her and the Save the Children organization is great, and I could not imagine a better pairing of souls.

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The experience today had a bit of everything. The hope on the children’s faces often stood in stark contrast to the concerns of the older generation.

The one constant being the appreciation for organizations such as Save the Children.  Organizations who go the extra step to ensure the quickest response time when it comes to helping children around the world.

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With the evening drawing to a close, I take my coffee to the rooftop of the hotel and look over Kathmandu. The city is teeming with life. The prayer flags scattered throughout the city are dancing in the evening breeze in sync with the spirit of the people of Nepal, understanding the road ahead:

आफ्नो भाग्य आफैले बनाउनु पर्छ!   ~ We ourselves have to create our own destiny ~

An Angel in Nepal ~ One Year on from the Nepal Earthquakes, Kathmandu - Save the Children Hong Kong-19

The smiles and the laughter of this trip are strong reminders of the need to help the most vulnerable and most important resource on earth: the children.

The empathy and grace Cathy carried on her visit to Nepal highlighted her support of the Children’s Emergency Fund: a fund to ensure quick response to children around the world.

The importance of continued support and giving being the key to bringing hope, and if you are interested, more information can be found at the below sites:

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An Angel in Nepal ~ One Year on from the Nepal Earthquakes, Kathmandu - Save the Children Hong Kong-21

Perspectives of Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka.  No doubt a beautiful country.  The lowlands are surrounded by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean rhythmically rolling onto white sandy beaches of the island.

The central highlands, a jungle of green where a cool temperate climate offers a perfect environment for Sri Lanka’s billion-dollar-a-year tea industry. Lush tea plantations scattered throughout the picturesque scenery.

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Nestled within the highlands is the city of Nuwara Eliya, one of the premium tea growing areas of the world. High above the clamor of the lowlands, the verdant landscape feels as if time has stood still.

In many ways it has, as for centuries the tea plantations have counted on the quiet exploitation of the Tamil minority group, members of the lowest caste system in Sri Lanka, to pick tea leaves. Isolated in the remote mountainous areas of Sri Lanka, it is the Tamil women who make up the work force that keep this industry flowing.

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The life of a tea picker is hard, long days combined with squalor living conditions make it clear why Tamil Indian laborers were imported into the country so long ago to fill such jobs. Jobs locals refused to take.

Upon a wall of a dilapidated shack in a plantation housing project, eight simple words summarizes generations of thought for tea pickers here in Nuwara Eliya: “Life is a pain…endure is the answer.”

A place with little hope, yet the little hope of today is more than they imagined a decade ago.

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She looks down at her calloused hands.  Her day picking tea leaves having just ended, she winces at the pain as she lifts her bag of leaves and gives them to the field manager.  

Ahead is a hard hour hike home over the hill where she will busy herself with chores, fetch water, cook dinner for her family and then spend what little time remains with her reason for living: her beautiful baby daughter.  

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Tears well up in her eyes as she honestly wonders if this is as good as it gets. 

Every day is the same bad dream, the same hell. Day in. Day out.  She wakes up prior to dawn and sets out to the tea fields, plucking tea until dusk and then takes the long hike home. Praying for no harassment, praying for a peaceful night. She understands this is the fate of a Tamil woman on a tea plantation: a woman with little power, a woman with little control of her life.

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Sadness hits when she realizes if her young daughter is lucky enough, she may have at best a similar fate. “If she is lucky…” Quickly she erases any such negative thought from her mind.

As a member of the Tamil minority group working in a male dominated culture, there simply are few options available for her, her daughter or their future.  

This thought breaks her heart. 

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She looks out her doorway at a group of Save the Children workers and dreams the impossible dream for her daughter.  

Could the promise of a safe environment for children; a school for her daughter to attend and learn the wonders of the world become a reality?

She allows herself to smile inwardly at such hope, but understands Sri Lanka and the history and culture of her people all to well to put such faith into the future.  

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Standing in the doorway, she ponders the stories and rumors of Save the Children, the hope this organization has brought to neighboring tea plantations. It is a glint of a possibility, the chance of future happiness for her daughter.

She steps closer to listen to the voices of the workers as supplies are dropped off, and before she is noticed she quickly slips back into her tiny shack.

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As she begins to prepare dinner she senses a tingling of awareness, the freedom the human soul needs to dream and pursue experiences.

Tonight she is happy. She reflects back on the stories of suffering and repression told by her grandmother and mother, as well as the horrible experiences she’s had herself, but instead of defeat she sees hope. The hope the vicious cycle of oppression will end.

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Generations upon generation of young women are born into servitude in the tea industry, forever working the tea fields of Sri Lankan tea plantations.

The high country of Nuwara Eliya, far removed from the large cities and their economic successes, has remained stuck in the dark ages. Business corruption and ancient ideas thousands of years old keep the Tamil people of this area stuck in purgatory.

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The Tamils give their life and blood to the tea industry, making up 2% of the country’s GDP, a commitment spanning centuries. It is a hard life, and while the industry is trying to find a way to give back, there are conflicts of interest.

Business is business, and tea plantation owners are currently undergoing a deteriorating market for Ceylon Tea. In addition to the fear of further decreases in sales and higher costs of providing benefits to the field workers, plantation owners are also terrified of losing a cheap workforce by allowing freedoms and opportunities to the Tamil women and children.

Economics of the modern-day meets the politics of the dark ages.

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Save the Children as well as other relief organizations have been working to break this relentless and cruel cycle robbing the potential of these children. It is difficult to not shudder while looking into their eyes understanding the future ~ their fate determined at birth.

Change is not easy, especially given the tension between gender and class struggle seeped in cultural beliefs spanning millenniums. The Tamil women and children face daily battles in this quagmire of repression.

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A Sri Lankan worker at Save the Children discussed the value the organization brings to the people of Nuwara Eliya, mentioning a quote from Swami Vivekananda, “Dare to be free, dare to go as far as your thought leads, and dare to carry that out in your life.

This piece of Hindu philosophy, an important part of their culture, rings hollow to them. It is difficult for them to grasp the idea of freedom not to mention the courage to act on such thoughts.

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The people of Sri Lanka are the ones stepping up to make a difference. Sri Lankans with the wisdom to understand the value women and children have to their country and their efforts within the Save the Children system brings real change via the following programs:

  • Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD)
  • Education
  • Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

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Such programs provide the base to empower the women of Nuwara Eliya and of Sri Lanka. When hope is instilled in a group, confidence soon follows giving strength to tackle issues. Real change begins to take place.

The Tea Association of Sri Lanka is working with Save the Children on an updated branding model for Fair Trade Tea, a platform of reform for all large tea estates to provide specific and permanent benefits for women and children within their plantation.

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In the past, salaries of women from the tea estates were transferred directly to the “man of the house” with the result of wages often wasted on alcohol or gambling.

No longer is this the case. Women now receive salaries directly so the money can be used to buy food and necessary items for childcare. This is empowerment. Step-by-step, change is happening. The dreams of children are beginning to form.

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She again stands in the doorway, this time watching her grown daughter go off to work. Her daughter, as with past generations of her family continues the tradition of working on the tea estates…but here is a twist to the tale. Instead of picking leaves in a field far away, she is wearing a white blouse and has entered a nurse-in-training program at the local clinic.

Her daughter looks back and gives a quick smile before disappearing into the plantation’s maternity clinic.

Her eyes well up with tears once again as they had every evening in the past when she worked in the fields. This time, however, the tears of sadness are absent instead flowing down her cheeks are tears of pure happiness…  

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Save the Children and other aid groups such as World Vision are working in Sri Lanka to break the cycle of repression.  To provide hope for children and their mothers, an opportunity to achieve what once was unimaginable: an education and a dream of advancement.

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If you are interested in learning more about Save the Children please click on a site listed below:

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The Endurance of Tacloban: Heart of the Philippines

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Violent winds swirl the dark, ominous thunderclouds overhead. The pounding waves crash onto the rocky shore and the roar of the Pacific Ocean makes its intention clear: thrash anything in its path.

With electricity in the air, I am oblivious to everything except the power coming my way as rain beats against my face, sucking me into the depths of the storm.

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Ever since I was young, the powerful forces of storms, especially on the Oregon Coast, have held a rare type of electricity for me.  Electricity that excites my soul and eliminates any trace of fear I may have.

Chasing the idea of becoming one with the storm.  Not just to see the power unravel in front of me, but to physically feel this rare electricity.

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The past three days I’ve experienced a different type of feeling.

Walking along the Tacloban city coastline watching the sunrise, I am beginning to understand the other side of this “rare electricity” I feel when Mother Nature unleashes her fury ~ the distress and chaos she creates.

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Understanding why hearts quicken to a point of exhaustion when thunder clasps and wind and rain fill the sky.

Understanding why there is no glint of excitement in the eyes as a storm brews, instead only an endless sadness: a mix of memories and dread.

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The eyes of the children of Tacloban carry terrifying memories and fear from last year; introduced to them on November 8, 2013.

This was the day when super-typhoon Yolanda unleashed her fury on the quiet city of Tacloban in the Philippines. On that dark day, more than 6,000 people died. 11 million lives were directly affected, 5.9 million of those children.

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As I stand here this morning on a beach outside the city, surrounded by a special kind of darkness found only within the hour of dawn, my mind drifts back to that day one year ago.

Thoughts drift to a stunned family, who sat in their makeshift home as the seawater entered and refused to retreat.

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My mind trying to imagine the panic in the eyes of every family member, as the power of the current made the threat of the rising sea even more terrifying.

And as the hours passed, the surge of water would rise to over six feet, easily destroying homes and buildings… and well before then, the family would have been swept away by the sea.

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These are the eyes that are now teaching me.  Allowing me to see a side of nature that can bring the strongest spirit down to its knees.

These eyes also inspire. Having seen what the people of Tacloban have done over the past year brings to life the words of William Barclay:

“Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, 

but to turn it into glory”

The people here have endured…

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On this December morning, I find myself in Tacloban with Save the Children on one of those rare, magical experiences that life offers.

The visit has shown the devastation typhoon Yolanda brought upon this area and the great effort that Save the Children has made in rebuilding lives.

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Trying to wrap my mind around what has happened here is almost futile, but I am learning.

The goal of this trip was to witness not just the rebuilding of structures, but also understand the post-recovery training programs.  Programs to ensure lifelong change for the children, their families and communities.

  • Training teachers and leaders of communities
  • Supporting access to quality child care and development

And most important: teaching skills that can turn the hopes and dreams of children into reality.

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The genuine smiles have tugged at the heartstrings throughout the past three days and seeing the recovery program has been brilliant. There is something special here, apart from the shared tragedy there is a kindred spirit that mirrors the beauty of the land ~ the people here are creating a paradise.

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What has been done is incredible and with continued support it will become a miracle.  I walk away from Tacloban inspired.  The memory of sitting down and talking to these beautiful, young minds full of dreams is unforgettable.

This beautiful city along with Save the Children has made me believe there are such things as guardian angels.

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Looking out toward the sea, I feel a touch of sadness as the sun rises on my last day in Tacloban.  Turning and walking along the shore, I watch a man sitting in the bow of his boat working on a repair.

He gives me a nod along with a faint smile as I bring my camera up for a shot. He pauses, looks out into the distance and his lighthearted expression seems to take on a sense of melancholy.

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I’ve learned that along this small section of the coast, everyone lost someone in the typhoon last year. Hunkering down in flimsy shelters with the belief that the waters that gave life would never be cruel enough to turn on them; to reach out and take life as it did.

Walking through town, there are heart-wrenching and strong memories everywhere.

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Throughout Tacloban are gutted buildings, piles of rubble and stark reminders for all to see.

What is most painful and can seize the heart, are the small things that at first seem insignificant ~ until its significance hits.  Another reminder of the lives lost during that dark day.

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I try not to let my imagination and emotions get the best of me, but fail. I’ve read accounts of the struggles of the Tacloban community; families with wounds that will never be fully healed.  Local photographer Orlando Uy captures many emotions of his city in his photo-blog “A Walk With My Camera”.

These memories are everywhere: pain multiplied by thousands, as loved ones were swept away. My admiration and respect goes out to the people here who live with these daily reminders.

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The trauma and helplessness created by Yolanda now takes a back seat to the rebuilding of communities.  The creation of a future for themselves and for their children.

It is stirring to see the locals understand the opportunity they have. To embrace organizations like Save the Children, helping lay the framework for a lifelong investment into their future.

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The future of Tacloban is similar to the future of cities scattered all over the globe: it lies with the children.

During my stay, I learned the motto of Save the Children in times of emergency: “children can’t wait” as children are the one part of the population that are most vulnerable in times of turmoil.

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Seeing the ability of both the people of Tacloban and the workers at Save the Children, there is no doubt that this area will quickly bloom with laughter and happiness.

Witnessing the effective use of donations, my faith in human compassion and spirit has grown even further. I’ve long believed that the greatest gift an adult can give a child is happiness.

In return, the greatest gift a child can give us all is a smile.

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A special thanks to Save the Children ~ Hong Kong:

  • Debe Cheung
  • Queenie Mak

And Save the Children of the Eastern Leyte office in the Philippines:

  • Joanna Watson
  • Heidi Anicete
  • Cielito Barceló

And to all the volunteers and field staff that took the time to accompany and review all of the work done in the Tacloban area over the past year.

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If you are interested in learning more about Save the Children please click on one of the three sites listen below:

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