Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake on 25th April 2015. We were not prepared at all for a natural disaster of that scale. In its wake, the earthquake brought down many historical monuments to the ground, and left several others severely damaged. Houses were destroyed, loved ones lost and people’s lives were thrown out of order. The death toll reached 9000 with hundreds of thousands seriously injured or maimed. Years of hard work perished in a matter of seconds, and it was a huge blow to the morale of Nepalis. It was an international tragedy and fortunately, there has been an outpouring of support. As people started to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives, Sunil Karmarcharya, a non-residential Nepali who was in Boston at the time the disaster struck, came to lend a helping hand.
Sunil was born and raised in Kathmandu, Nepal. After completing his high school, he went to France to pursue his further studies. There he completed his Bachelor’s in Hotel Management. Thereafter, he went to the United States of America and interned at Grand Hyatt Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia for a year. He then again went back to France and completed his Master’s in Business Administration. After spending some time in France he went to London, England where he earned another Master’s degree in Business Management. He spent more than 5 years of his life before relocating back to Boston in the US and working in the hospitality sector. He’d been living abroad since the last 17 years. He was in shock like the rest of the country and Nepalese living abroad. He had his parents in Boston. That was a bit of a relief but his sister still lives in Kathmandu with her husband and a son. They were safe. But in those moments he realized he has not really done anything for the country. That gave him a push to do something for the country and for the community; give back to the place where he grew and lived most part of his life. He left the luxurious life he was living to come help in any way possible.
Currently, he has been involved in many projects that aims to alleviate the living conditions of people in rural Nepal – the hardest hit areas. Among them, he has been volunteering on a joint project of Conscious Impact, a United States based INGO, and YUWA Unity Nepal, a local NGO called the Greenhouse Project. This project aims to help the local community grow stronger by introducing a new way of sustainable farming in Takure, Sindhupalchok. Sunil was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to share his experience with Conscious Impact.
Tell us about Conscious Impact. How did you come across their work?
Conscious Impact is an international non-governmental organization (INGO) that works to bring resources to rural communities all around the world. It was founded immediately after the April Earthquake in Nepal. I learnt about Conscious Impact from a friend, back in Boston. My friend knew of my intentions of going to Nepal, and that I did not know where to start. When he suggested Conscious Impact, I did some research online but I wasn’t still sure if I wanted to volunteer with them. Also, I was working there so I could not travel immediately because of my prior commitments. Leaving something unfinished is something I don’t do. So, after tying the loose ends, I packed and came to Nepal. I reached Kathmandu on the 2nd of October and after a day or two of jet-lag, I went to the site where they were operating. They were working in Takure, a small village of about 245 houses in the rural district of Sindhupalchok. After getting acquainted with their goals and way of working, I had to get on board because they were so good.
Conscious Impact is like no other organization in my opinion. It is an organization run completely by volunteers in the truest sense possible. The donors are the volunteers. They donate a certain amount of money, they buy their own place in the volunteering team and work on the rebuilding process. You get your hands dirty, get to know what the organization is doing first hand and make a difference. Volunteers include architects, builders, botanists, logistics experts, educators, university students, and many more with various skills and passions in the group. They don’t give false promises. No big houses. No monetary aid. They have made their plans of making the village self-sustaining clear as day to the people. For me, this was a beautiful thing because there are many organizations that collect donations with a promise of helping people but after the donations are made, the donor don’t really know where and how their contributions are being used. But in Conscious Impact, you come in, give the money and you work. I really liked that concept.
How long have you been working with CI?
I came to Nepal on the 2nd of October last year and I have been working with them since the 4th of the same month.
What are their visions with this effort? How do they plan to achieve it?
Talking about their goals in Takure, Conscious Impact is working with a local NGO called YUWA Unity Nepal with the hope of building a sustainable community. The executives of the two organizations met while they were travelling, distributing relief materials in earthquake affected rural areas of Nepal. After finding a common interest of helping people, the Greenhouse Project was made. Their main goal is to help the local community grow stronger after the earthquake and use the chance to introduce to the area to a new way of sustainable farming, fundraise to build a greenhouse that will be hosting avocado and coffee saplings. The locals would sell them and thus make a sustainable profit so that they can rebuild their homes. Their short term goal is to build 2 primary schools in Takure using only the local resources as much as possible. Building a school would be more beneficial in the long term than helping build individual houses. Education is power. Disasters like that of April can happen anytime. So, educating the younger generation of such disasters would be an ideal solution.
How had the earthquake affected Takure and its people?
Takure is 45 minutes uphill drive from Melamchi, a municipality in Sidhupalchok district. When I reached there, I could see no houses standing. Once where 2 or 3 storied houses stood, now majority has become rubble. I was told that all of the 245 houses in Takure sustained minor or major damage. No human casualties were recorded though. Even months after the earthquake, people were living under worn-down tents, tarpaulin roofs and temporary houses of zinc sheets. Even those were in terrible conditions. I could see dish antennae among the rumble that made me assume that the people had quite a nice living there with basic facilities available to them. People work their entire life to make a house made of bricks into a home. Imagine having to lose all that. That took a toll on their self-esteem and morale. I don’t think I can really imagine the amount of grief they suffered.
What has been done to alleviate their suffering? Has the government been there for the people? And how what has already been done impacted life in Takure?
Conscious Impact and YUWA are doing some major backbreaking work. Their immediate goal of reconstructing 2 primary schools is already underway. Almost 16000 bricks are required to build one school and since we’re making the bricks and other manual works ourselves, the progress has been slower but we hope to finish one of the schools before the monsoon this year. As for me, I started out as a volunteer. I would go there for 10-14 days at a time and then come back to Kathmandu because I am working to help my brother with his business in the US by looking at his accounts and finances. It’s not work per se but I submit a report twice every month and look after the payrolls and some other duties. I still do that. But now, using my knowledge of both English and Nepali and familiarity with the people involved, I act as a coordinator between the CI people and the villagers. Besides the physical tasks, many of us go around Takure talking to people on a daily basis. Not only to assess how people are feeling about our work but to listen to what they have to say. Listen to their stories. Sometimes, a listening ear can make someone feel so welcomed and cared about. We also ask them to see for themselves of the work we’re doing and even asking the locals to participate. That way they know that we are not just big talks. Similarly getting the locals involved with the building process, they’ll get a sense of pride because they are contributing to rebuilding their once thriving village and earn along the way.
In the time period that I have been working there, I have not really seen any major efforts by the Government. They did provide monetary help of Rs. 10000 to each family. However to collect their aid, they had to go to Melamchi, wait in line for hours and make the strenuous journey uphill back to the homes. The first aid that I know of what provided around December and the next was given in February. Other INGOs and NGOs have been very active though. They had put up temporary living quarters and schools to rehabilitate the displaced people.
Recently, after finding the prospect of growing avocados was good in that area, we distributed about 200 saplings to the villagers. We are researching to see what other crops are suitable to grow there. Animal Husbandry is also favorable there with every houses domesticating some kind of livestock. That also works for the benefit and our cause of making Takure a sustainable village.
The villagers, at this point, are very positive. A light of hope has shone there and everyone is trying to make it bigger. The physical damage is very apparent even a year after the initial shake, but the spirit of the people here and all around Nepal appear to getting stronger and more hopeful. Rice continues to thrive in the rice paddy fields, goats keep munching on foliage, while day to day business rolls on and kids play on the streets.
Are you volunteering anywhere else?
Yes. I am involved with other smaller projects. For instance, I am working with Sano Aasha. It is not a registered NGO but they are doing some great work. Unsung heroes, let’s say. Some time back, we went to Dakshinkaali and conducted a feeding program to the needy people. Everything was prepared by ourselves and distributed. We also distributed 500 blankets in Sunakothi, Sindhupalchok during the winter. I will also be going to Yangri. It is also in Sindhupalchok but much more remote than Takure. It takes about half an hour hike after getting off the bus. One of the other INGOs I am working with are trying to build houses for the people there. Nothing too big but permanent houses of 2 bedrooms each. It costs about $1200 to build a single house. This venture is being funded by other non-residential Nepalese in the US. Their goal is to finish 14 houses in the coming month. I will be going there to assess the location and see what has been done till now and what approaches can be taken to improve their condition.
What are the challenges of volunteering in this area?
For me, leaving a life that I had in the US – my work, my family. Before coming to Nepal, I worked as a manager in a fine dining restaurant in Boston. I also worked for Om Namo Centre and Yoga Studio. I had major responsibilities of marketing and finances in those two businesses. I had a pretty stable life which was flexible enough for me to pursue my personal interests for hiking, cycling and traveling. I am a very athletic person and doing those invigorates me. Life in Takure is difficult. Not just for me but for other volunteers who left their luxurious life and came to help people they don’t even know. We live in tents in the woods. In the night, low growls of wild animals can be heard around us. Even the simplest of life pleasures like taking a shower is a luxury there. This experience can be compared to the life of the contestants in Survivor. It tested our mental, emotional and physical ability. And I have to come back to Kathmandu fortnightly to prepare the financial report. The frequent load-shedding, pollution and fuel crisis. There were and are many dispiriting factors. But we did not let that stop us. We persevered.
What motivates and inspires you to do your best to overcome those dispiriting challenges?
Besides the thought of doing this to help somebody, my own dedication and perseverance. I can only do so much. I know what I am doing now does not even make a dent in this field of volunteering and social work where others have dedicated years of their lives. But I believe my efforts coupled with the hard work of others will amount to something big. I also believe my personal belief of finishing what I started consistently pushes me to overcome any obstacles thrown at me.
How do you think your experience will benefit you?
Volunteering itself is a beautiful concept of giving something back. No matter what level of volunteering you do. Be it making a systematic queue in a crowded office or as a traffic volunteer. It has to come with passion. And the biggest thing is it makes you want to be passionate and compassionate about things. And now if I have to do anything, I can put more soul into it, if I like. Volunteering has given me an expanded perspective, given me opportunity to work with new challenges, people and interpersonal dynamics. It gives a sense of achievement and motivation, and this is ultimately generated from the desire and enthusiasm to help. It has also enabled me to understand the importance of the smallest of resources available.
What advice would you give to future social workers or motivate anyone who is considering volunteering?
Develop an attitude of just giving back to the society, to the country without expecting anything in return. Compassion and Passion need to come together. Don’t wait for a crisis to come in order to volunteer. Just do it. There are so many organizations looking for able people. It has to come from within. Just be ready to face anything. Challenges will come but don’t falter. And you also get to meet like-minded people and networking is always a good thing.
Volunteering is a fun and easy way to explore your interests and passions. Doing volunteer work you find meaningful and interesting can be a relaxing, energizing escape from your day-to-day routine of work, school, or family commitments. Volunteering also provides you with renewed creativity, motivation, and vision that can carry over into your personal and professional life. It offers one such opportunity to bring positive changes in oneself, but other several lives.