Here is an account from Dr. Fazila Lalani, an ER physican from NY, who volunteered with Amurt Amurtel in Nepal immediately after the earthquake there in May.
So, I arrived safe and sound, with amazing hosts who speak perfect English (which is great because a giggle erupts every time I try my Hindi). At every meal, someone keeps refilling my plate over and over, saying “Doctor, you have to work, we can’t have you go hungry!” Needless to say, I’m well taken care of.
Being here is obviously extremely sad, but it’s amazing to be living in a world, albeit briefly, where everyone only has helping others on the mind, 24/7. It’s wild to watch everyone rally for endless strangers, stay up till the late hours coordinating donations, trips, transportation, supplies…one volunteer turned around and drove back from a trip to the Indian border to buy more Tarps because there are none to be found in Kathmandu. Just image a world like this every day, everywhere. Image how successful a society we would be? I’m working with an organization called AMURT/AMURTEL that I came across while in Haiti in 2010. Just a glimpse of what we’ve been doing: two days ago, a group of us- 3 doctors and 6 volunteers, drove 4 hours (110 kms) from Kathmandu on a gorgeous but scary mountainous road to one of the many villages in the Himalayan mountains that was devastated by the quake. We set up 3 tables in front of the makeshift tent Police Station around 3 pm and saw patients until dark. We stayed in a little motel in the town which was completely empty, even the owners and staff slept on sheets on the ground floor, fearful that the earth would shake again. (There are multiple small quakes throughout the night, few that my sound sleeping self ever witnessed but definitely a conversation topic every morning over tea. Oh wait, one just hit right now! Probably just a 2-3 on the Richter scale, it lasted about 2-3 seconds and felt like the first rattle when your roller coaster is about to take off. I awoke to the most beautiful dew over the Himalayan Mountains and meditated with my team at 5 AM. We started the Medical Camp again at 6:30 and saw another 100 patients in 3 hours. Tarps and bags of rice were distributed to the families whose homes were the most destroyed and I will remember their expressions of appreciation for a long time to come. A pick-up truck drove us down an extremely bumpy 30 minutes into a village deep in the Himalayas. Our first village for medical relief aid was Farsidol Village, roughly a 2-hour drive from Kathmandu. The villagers lined up as soon as they heard our car. I’ve travelled remotely before but this was definitely the “remotest”, and also most beautiful and most appreciative place I have ever been. We saw another 130 patients and witnessed an endless number of brick and mortar homes crumbled into pieces and the locals working endlessly to put them back together again. When we returned to our car back on the main road, another 50 people were waiting for us. We set up camp at the local farmer Potato Co-op, which provided great shelter as we saw farmer after farmer in the pouring rain. We returned to Kathmandu after a long day, seeing over 300 people, and found the volunteers who stayed back, working hard on the phones trying to collect supplies so we can do it all again today.
Needless to say, I feel so fortunate to be a part of this team. If you ever have an opportunity to give back, jump on it. It feels so good. Actually, I take that back…seek out the opportunity…you’ll get more out out of it than you could ever give.
Haiti: it will break your heart and rebuild it in the same breath. This was my experience throughout our five day visit this spring. It is a place of poverty and scant opportunity, but also a home to strong, capable, caring people who long for the chance to build a better life for themselves and their children. Didi Jiiva Prema, the director of Amurtel Haiti, has created successful and empowering programs dedicated to help them do just that. A children’s home, three schools, micro-credit and Self Help groups for women, teen girls after-school programs, and computer literacy classes are just some of the projects Amurtel runs that make meaningful differences in the life of the women and children in the camps and small villages.
Arriving at the children’s home in Bourdon Port au Prince we find a place of controlled chaos that seems to runs on love. Managing a household of seventeen children under the age of eight requires a deep calm that is the bedrock of Didi’s temperament. Doing this with intermittent electricity and no running water is nothing short of a miracle.
These sweet, smart, funny and curious youngsters start their day early, beginning with optional meditation and yoga. On this dawn, the small foyer lit faintly by a few candles, my voice joining the voices of these sixteen tiny warriors as they sing Baba Nam Kevalam, “Love is all there is”, which feels so true right now. The children then don their birthday suits, and run down to the river for a morning splash. I watch as little Bondita, barely two years old, shivers in the early morning light awaiting her warm sudsy bath. If only that were so. Instead she gets a cleansing ladle of water dumped over her little head and a quick scrub. For her, there is no fluffy warm towel waiting, she just stands there and sucks her thumb. She doesn’t cry or throw a fit; she stands with an experienced stoicism that belies her age. My heart breaks, and I run to my room, grab my beach towel, and scoop her up. She nestles her little head into my neck, and for a moment we heal.
It was surprising to learn that these children were not up for adoption. “What do you mean it’s not an orphanage?” I asked Joni. She explained that these children live as family, very much brothers and sisters, with all the joys and sorrows that brings. Can you imagine being the two older boys with fourteen little sisters and a newborn baby brother? Felito and Chupateen are now eight and have been with Didi from their fragile beginnings. While they both rule as big brothers, it is six year old Sarita who makes sure that everyone has their fair share, enforcing integrity as needed. Each of the children has his or her own distinct personality, and as the day flowed from one activity to the next, it was a joy getting to know them. And I will not soon forget. This home is truly an oasis from the camp life of scarcity and violence from which most of these children have been rescued. Secure in a feeling of safety, their daily routine includes nutritious warm meals, education, laughter and music, and time to just play or relax – a luxury for almost all Haitian children.
Didi’s day transitions from caretaker to program manager, as the children head off to the school downstairs or busy themselves with their new art supplies. She and Joni are meeting with Shealda and Hilda, the two women who work with Amurtel Haiti as community organizers, They are discussing programming plans, budgets and financial needs for the coming year. It is a difficult conversation, as funding for these projects has dried up considerably since the earthquake. Yet the organizers are determined to keep them running; the overwhelming success, and the ardor of the women they serve prove their worth. Both women offer to take significant pay cuts on their already meager salaries, and Joni promises to find funding, assuring them Amurtel will not turn their backs on these programs. While so many other organizations have come and gone, Amurtel endures with over twenty years of support based not on throwing money at problems, but providing self-help solutions and partnering with those they serve.
My work day starts too, as I travelled here with two other friends, Emily and Alex, to bring yoga classes to the schoolchildren and offer some mother/daughter classes for the teens and women who participate in the programs. I was in for a quick lesson on how not to get attached to your plan. We had a wonderful translator, Jagat, our constant companion for all of our adventures. But quite a lot gets lost when you are leading a giggling gaggle of 30 three year olds. Over the course of five days, it became easier and easier to go with the natural flow of the people and their country, and measure my success by laughter and exhaustion at day’s end. One night Joni was checking in with us and asked how I was doing. My response was, “I’ve been peed on, rolled around on a filthy floor, mimed yoga postures to thirty confused faces, I’m exhausted and I feel so happy! What a great day!”
The afternoon schedule was a class for teen girls enrolled in the Teen ESPAS PAM (translated as Girl’s Space) program. These girls meet once a week for presentations, activities, games, and interactive discussions about the issues they face, with the ultimate goal to keep them in school and delay pregnancy. Many of the village girls have their first child before they turn 15, and rape and sexual abuse are not uncommon. But of the 57 girls who have participated in this program, only two have dropped out with one confirmed pregnancy. She bravely came back and spoke to the group on the hardship of poverty and pregnancy – it is much easier and better to stay in school. A powerful message when it comes from a peer.
This class was again an exercise in letting go of plans and connecting with the girls’ rhythm. It was quite telling when we went around the room, asking them to introduce themselves and tell us how energetic they felt, with responses from, “I feel strong. I feel sad. I am hungry. My stomach hurts. I am happy. I want some food.” Many of the responses broke my heart. But by the end of ninety minutes of yoga, activities, and a closing discussion on confidence, I found myself uplifted by their laughter and courage.
On the fourth day we travel to the southeast coast of Haiti to visit Amurtel’s school in Anse a Pitre and offer a yoga program to some members of the Self-Help women’s group and their teen daughters in Banaan. Getting there proved to be quite the ordeal. Both of Amurtel’s vehicles- the decrepit pickup truck and the twenty-five year old SUV had driven their final miles, so off to Avis rent a truck, for an exasperating three hour experience I will not put you through. Suffice it to say that raising funds for a new vehicle is a top priority.
The noise and bustle of life in the children’s home was a stark contrast to the peace and serenity of life at the school in Anse a Pitre. We set up our mosquito tents on the rooftop in the cool evening air and are thankful for the amazing stars at the end of a long day’s drive.
The morning greets us with a spectacular sunrise and peaceful meditation. I miss the sound of children’s voices, but the village children soon begin to appear, as early as 7 am for some, on a Saturday morning no less. They have been told about the three travelling yoginis and patiently wait for us to begin our class. By now we have figured out what works with our translation difficulties and the variety of ages and we invite them to ‘go to the zoo’ – one they must create for themselves. We start off with a few standard yoga animal poses – and let the children take over. And take over they did! I’m sure it will remain one of the most fun and silliest yoga classes I experience in my life. I think my favorite was the frog dog.
Our visit to Haiti ended with a powerful visit to a women’s Self-Help group in Banaan. Funded for three years, Didi and Joni were recently told the funding had run out and they would have to close down the program. “That’s not going to happen” they tell me, “this program is too important and too successful for us to shut it down”. The women live in a village without running water, without electricity, without access to medical care, but with more spirit and determination than could be imagined. Each of the women had to save twelve cents a week to participate in the group, and had to show up each week. If one was short, the others stepped in and supported her, knowing they may need that same assistance. The group met to discuss their priorities, and over time set a goal to create a weekly market in their town, so they wouldn’t have to make the long trek across the border to the Dominica Republic to sell, or deal with the harsh racism they face there each week. The local market was a dream that took two years to realize, and was achieved through cooperation and collaboration. They have now set their sights on bringing running water to the village, and to staff the government medical clinic which sits empty next to their meeting hall. Now all Joni and Didi need to do is find funding for the community organizers have agreed to, along with funds for a vehicle, and the teen girls program, and the tutors for the older children, and the… … The list is long and daunting, but Amurtel seems to take the challenge of keeping these programs in stride.
I do want to end with a word of caution to anyone who is considering volunteering for one of Amurtel’s many worthwhile projects – be it for a five day visit like mine, or a year-long internship. You may leave and return home, but the experience will never leave you. Each morning now when I sing, I am joined by my memories of those sixteen precious voices. And already I am planning my reunion.
Earlier this winter my two daughters and I found ourselves standing behind a rusty metal gate at the bottom of a steep dirt drive. After 3 days of travelling by planes, taxis, buses and finally motorbikes, we had finally arrived at Baan Unrak Children’s home in Sangklaburi Thailand. We had set off on this adventure around the world knowing that we wanted to go be of service, but had very little idea what we were going to find or what that was going to look like.
Baan Unrak was unimpressive at first glance. It was neat and tidy and rather quiet. A flock of geese honked at us as they strolled by. There were a few children down at the gate who were eager to greet us. One of them offered to help us find Didi. Didi Devamala is the founder of Baan Unrak. She has built the orphanage from the ground up and is the heart and soul of the place. We would rarely see her without a child on her shoulder or hip. On our walk up the hill I found myself suddenly filled with doubt. Would we fit in here? Would we actually be able to find ways to be of service? How would we overcome the language barrier? Have I just made the most gigantic mistake ever? Why do I always just jump? Can I turn around and run now? Fortunately the answer to the last question was no. The journey home to Vermont was too great. As we had nowhere to run, the only way out was through.
I sat before Didi that first time feeling so filled with inadequacy. Here was a woman who had single-handedly created a children’s home that houses and cares for 150 kids. Here I was, a silly western mother who had travelled half way around the world in the hopes of doing a few moments of good. I was the only one passing judgement. She welcomed us with open arms. She fed us, invited us to kiirtan and meditation with all the children and then had us tucked into our volunteer house for a much needed good night’s rest.
The next two weeks passed all too quickly. With the help of Didi and a wonderful crew of volunteers we quickly found our niche. We did art projects with the youngest of the children in the mornings. We worked on the farm making dirt, planting beans and picking cashews and jackfruit. We gave massages to both sick and healthy babies. We helped referee bicycle time and drove the kids to go swimming on the weekend. We even tried our hand at teaching English and worked with the children to make a sign board to take to market.
But really the projects we worked on were the least of it. It turns out that Baan Unrak is a truly amazing place. The power of our time there came, not from any one thing that we “did” but from simply being there and being with the children. It was so easy to see while we were there that what we were was enough. All we really needed to do was offer what we had. All we really needed to do was love. At Baan Unrak everything always seems to fall into place. Whatever is offered, whatever is present is exactly what is needed. The children there seem to inherently trust in this and in Didi. They come from varied and often traumatic backgrounds but the power of this place heals them. These children have so many smiles and so few tears. They gobble up the love and attention that is offered, not in a needy or hungry way, but in a way that says that they knew you would come and are glad you are here and also that they will be fine when you go.
Baan Unrak takes in children who have been hurt, and neglected, many of them coming from extremely traumatic circumstances, and gives them a safe and loving space. It takes hungry children and feeds them nutritious food. It takes children who had no hopes of a future and sends them off to school. But I think most of all Baan Unrak gives everyone there a sense of belonging. Didi shows these children every day in a thousand ways that she loves them and trusts in who they are. These children know their worth. They have an inherent grace and strength that will touch and transform anyone and everyone they meet.
In our time there we were privileged to come to know one little 12 month old girl who had first come to the orphanage five months before. At the time Ishvarii arrived she was very very sick. She ended up in the hospital in Bangkok in a coma and on a ventilator for months. When we met her she had been back at Baan Unrak for about 2 months. This little girl who had been at death’s door a few months ago was now the queen of the orphanage. She could not yet walk and no one knew if she ever would. She was showing developmental delays and no one knew how much, if any of that would resolve. She will likely face serious challenges for the rest of her life. But she had found a home. Her new family had rallied around her and donors from all over the world stepped up to get this child the treatment she needed to survive. You could see in watching Ishvarii get passed from child to child and in watching her ride around held close on Didi’s shoulder as she went about her day how lucky she was to be here and how lucky they were to have her. We watched Ishvarii transform in our two weeks there. When we arrived she would cry immediately as soon as whoever was holding her stopped walking. She needed to be in constant motion. She also couldn’t stand to have her hands or feet touched and would cry every time they tried to feed her. The last day we spent with her at Baan Unrak we were able to spend a few minutes sitting quietly with her while she smiled and without even noticing stood supported on her own feet. The Magic of Baan Unrak was working on her. She was unfolding. When we caught up with her again two weeks later in Bangkok at the end of our trip she enjoyed a few bites of food without crying and a couple of weeks ago Didi sent an email saying that she had begun taking steps. Ishvarii’s story to me exemplifies the power and the beauty of Baan Unrak. This little girl who surely would have died had she not ended up here is now thriving, inspiring smiles and opening hearts wherever she goes.
Baan Unrak transforms not only the children it houses, but also the volunteers who come to serve. I watched my own children unfold here. I watched tenderness and caring grow in them that I had never known was there. I watched confidence and trust fill in the spaces where doubt and fear had been. I wrote to a friend soon after I arrived that I had never felt so at home or so free of fear. My heart has never felt as it did in my time at Baan Unrak. I came with so much ego and left with so much peace. We had hoped to travel to Thailand and create positive change. We had no idea that that change would be occurring within our own hearts. Didi and the children and volunteers of Baan Unrak welcomed us wholeheartedly into their tribe. They made us feel we were one of their own. They shared their love and their grace and showed us who we were and told us that that was enough. They sent us off stronger and freer and we will carry that with us wherever we go. It was a thoroughly amazing adventure that has transformed each one of us individually as well as formed a bond between us that I am sure will last a life time. Their door is always open and they are in constant need of both funding and long term volunteers. They can change your life, and you can help be a part of changing theirs as well.
Jennifer Watkins is a nurse and mother of two, living in Central Vermont. For more information on the Baan Unrak Community, including the Children’s Home, School, Women’s Weaving Center and Animal Sanctuary, visit www.baanunrak.org or on Facebook.
On April 25, 2015 a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal, killing close to 10,000 people, injuring more than 23,000 and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, with entire villages flattened. Continued aftershocks occurred throughout Nepal, with a major aftershock in May which which left another 200 people dead and more than 2,500 injured. Many who had begun to rebuild their homes watched in despair as this aftershock once again destroyed everything.
AMURT & AMURTEL have been active on the Indian sub-continent since 1970, and therefore have a strong presence in the region. Hence our teams were able to mobilize quickly, with three teams from India joining their counterparts in Nepal to set up relief camps in nine earthquake-affected districts.
AMURT & AMURTEL volunteers provide basic supplies, such as essential groceries, tarpaulins and blankets, along with medical support through mobile clinics. In the first month after the earthquakes AMURT & AMURTEL has distributed food parcels to 15,300 persons, tarpaulins to 2,088 persons and 7,500 people have been treated by our medical volunteers.
With the coming of the monsoon rains, it became critical to get shelters set up. Rain, mosquitos, snakes- all worries added to the desperate situation so many thousands of families found themselves in. At the beginning of July Amurt and Amurtel teams partnered with 180 families to begin rebuilding homes, distributing sheets of metal roofing. As funds come in we will continue to help families rebuild.
AMURT & AMURTEL has begun training teachers to respond to trauma as they welcome back students that had been out of school since the earthquakes. The training consists of four days with two days reserved for theory and exercises and two days of practical coaching with the students back in school. The training draws on multiple resources such as creative therapies, yoga and group therapies. As most schools were damaged or destroyed AMURT/EL has set up Temporary Learning Centers that starts with the students decorating their classrooms.
The Nepali Ministry of Home Affairs confirmed a total of 488,789 houses destroyed and 267,477 damaged during the two earthquake period of April and May 2015. The death toll stand at 8,219 people and half a million buildings damaged or destroyed. In the most affected districts up to 80 % of the public schools are damaged or destroyed leaving most children out of school.. United Nations estimate 3 million people are in need of food aid.
AMURT & AMURTEL volunteers are busy day and night providing basic supplies, such as essential groceries, tarpaulins and blankets, along with medical support through mobile clinics. In the first month after the earthquakes AMURT & AMURTEL has distributed food parcels to 15,300 persons, tarpaulins to 2,088 persons and 7,500 people have been treated by our medical volunteers.
AMURT & AMURTEL is responding with relief teams in several locations and is appealing for donations.