KORIYAMA, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – Nepalese teenagers who survived devastating earthquakes in the mountain kingdom last year are drawing inspiration from how Tohoku has sprung back in the past five years, conveying ideas about disaster preparedness to their compatriots back home.
As work to rebuild homes, government buildings and businesses continue, these young people are helping to fortify Nepal against future disasters.
In December, a nongovernmental organization in Miyagi Prefecture ran a program for high school students from disaster-hit areas of Nepal. They visited parts of Tohoku that bore the brunt of Japan’s own tragedy and spoke to residents about dealing with the emotional trauma.
It was Sumi Sharma’s first trip to Japan and it helped her face up to her own ordeal. Sharma, 17, saw family members dead and injured in the Nepalese disaster and was one of five Nepalis who took part in a nearly weeklong training by the Japan IsraAID Support Program (JISP).
When a magnitude-7.8 earthquake struck on April 25, 2015, Sharma was in a six-story building that served both as her home and as a family-owned guest house. It partially collapsed.
She scrambled to help her relatives, including her injured mother, identified her uncle’s body and helped to find survivors under the rubble.
“There was grief and confusion, but I don’t know if I felt fear. I just felt so numb. In just a moment, people you love, people you know, are gone. Houses are in pieces. But if there is something the disaster taught me, it is to be strong mentally in these times,” Sharma said.
Sharma now wants to work in disaster management and volunteer in disaster-stricken areas.
She said that her time in Japan left her “inspired by stories of resilience from devastation there, which struck a similar chord to my experience, and made me want to do my own share of helping other survivors.”
Last year, international donors pledged around $4.4 billion to help the Nepal recover from its twin earthquakes in April and May, which caused around $7 billion of damage and losses.
But experts argue that Nepal, despite being known as one of the world’s most vulnerable areas to earthquakes, lacks the knowledge, community capacity-building, skills and facilities needed to prepare for disasters and deal with the aftermath.
Picking up on that need to make Nepal more resilient to disasters, JISP, the Japanese branch of IsraAID, an Israel-based crisis-response NGO, wants to make young Nepalis more aware about disaster preparedness and about how to care for the mental needs of survivors.
JISP was set up to support survivors of the disaster in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima prefectures.
The 10 youths from Nepal and Japan, five each from both countries, listened as survivors told them what they went through in tsunami-hit Ishinomaki and Kesennuma, both in Miyagi Prefecture.
They also had role-playing exercises on how to deal with disasters and learned about the concept of psychological first aid, which is used by first responders, health care providers and other disaster relief teams.
Tsering Tamang, 15, said the program taught her how to stay safe in an earthquake and made her realize how her country lagged behind Japan in terms of knowledge about and application of psychological first aid, which aims to reduce the initial distress felt after a disaster.
Tamang, who survived an avalanche that struck Langtang, north of Kathmandu, and still has flashbacks of that fateful day, said she learned through her training in Japan that survivors must tend to themselves first before looking out for others.
“We need to look, listen and link,” Tamang said, referring to the three action principles of such aid, which teaches to “look” at the reality when disaster strikes, “listen” to the needs of survivors and provide emotional support, and “link” them to crucial information and their separated loved ones.
“What is most important now in Nepal is to find long-lasting rehabilitation and address psychosocial needs that go beyond physical needs such as food, shelter and clothing,” Bijay Gyawali, program coordinator and associate director of Nepal Disaster Specialist Education Program of JISP, told the teenagers.
“Even if the houses are built or other physical needs are met, in the end, a survivor’s recovery will ring hollow and not be full-fledged if his emotional and psychological care is not addressed,” said Gyawali, 33, a clinical psychologist who travels back and forth between Nepal and Japan.
While Sharma and Tamang have been inspired to put into action what they learned from Gyawali and others, their Japan-based compatriot, Bishal Khattri, 18, said he, too, was motivated by their meeting.
Representing the Japanese side, Khattri believes he has a unique role in conveying lessons to people back home, as a Nepali and as someone who survived Japan’s 2011 earthquake.
Although Khattri and his family were uninjured in the quake, he was not unaffected. His family’s curry shop business was suspended at one point, and his school limited outdoor activities because of radiation from the Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant.
His family are now based in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture.
“The disasters in Japan and Nepal made me think more about my future and what I can do,” he said, adding that he admires the students in Nepal for getting involved in rebuilding work despite lacking the resources workers in Japan have.
Immediately after their immersion program, the Nepali and Japanese youths created a project to distribute jackets, blankets, gloves, socks and woolen caps to a group of students in the hard-hit Sindhupalchowk district, northeast of Kathmandu, to help them through the Nepalese winter. There were concerns that the chill was taking a toll on many people there.
A team including Sharma and Tamang also performed an art therapy session and educated other Nepali children about disaster preparedness in the hope that they will share their knowledge with their families and communities.
Khattri wants to improve conditions in his home country, which is, after all, a developing nation.
“I would like to carry out a project in Nepal that has not yet been implemented there,” he said. “Together with other youths in Japan, we are discussing what more can we do for Nepal.”
While encouraging the youths in their own projects, JISP has teamed up with the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo and Nepal’s Trichandra College to carry out what it says is Nepal’s first-ever training of disaster specialists.
Under a one-year program, begun in August in cooperation with the ministry and JISP, 25 people, including social workers, are receiving training through course and field work. They are expected to serve in nongovernmental organizations and schools in Nepal.
“While psychological care is a well-known area of expertise in Japan, it is not so in Nepal, where clinical psychologists are scarce, much less those who specialize in looking after post-disaster survivors. It is important to find a framework with longer-term benefits for local people, even after foreign rescue aid workers leave after the first two years,” said Gyawali.