The email came in just after two o’clock:
“The extent of the disaster in Nepal very likely means that placement in Nepal this September will be impossible…For the moment confirmation of ALL September placements in your cohort is suspended until we can review all options for your cohort”
After having spent the entire afternoon refreshing inbox, this was a rather disappointing message. I have been waiting since February to find out where I’ll be interning for my final year of studies. At the top of my list was Prerana, a small NGO based just outside Kathmandu.
The earthquake messed up my plans, but compared to the tens of thousands who are displaced and grieving, it is a minor inconvenience. Reading through the tragic stories this week has brought back a lot of memories.
I was in Japan when a massive earthquake and Tsunami rocked the country four years ago. It sounds like a long time, but the feelings of the rolling ground and the fearful weeks of aftershocks are like yesterday.
Three days after the quake hit, I showed up to start volunteering with a small NGO based in Tokyo. Because we were one of the few organizations comfortable working in Japanese and English, we were flooded with offers of help. One of my jobs in that first week was to go through the long list of offers that we had received and prioritize as follows:
1. Team, in country
2. Individual, in country
3. Team, international
4. Individual, international
At the bottom of the list were people like me: full of good intentions but lacking in concrete skills. This week my peers have been sharing a Guardian Op-Ed, which suggests that our goodwill would be more effectively spent on food aid than plane tickets.
This is true, but I’m reminded of two of the applications I saw on that list after the Japanese earthquake. The first was from an ex-Navy SEAL, who offered to bring a team of search and rescue dogs to assist in the recovery. I was pretty wowed.
The second was much different. It came from a “children’s entertainer” whose specialty was making balloon animals. He wanted to come and do shows for some displaced children.
The contrast is ridiculous, isn’t it?
In my mind, I quickly threw out balloon man and fantasized about getting to meet GI Joe. With time, however, my perspective changed. Three months after the disaster, I went up to help. Our team cleaned out houses and gardens that had been ravaged by the tsunami. On our way back, we stopped at an emergency shelter, where families were still living in partitioned sections of a large conference centre. Just outside there was a stage set up. Up at the front was someone who I could only describe as a children’s entertainer; he was singing songs and dancing with the children. I was shocked: here was the type of person that I had dismissed as useless working just like I was to help his neighbors.
When it comes to earthquake recovery, I know that that rescue animals are more effective, might there be a place for balloon animals, too? When we think about relief and development, we often reduce our work to “mouths to feed” and “heads to roof”. At this point, we have turned people into problems, and dehumanized the people we set out to help.
Whether it is through a balloon giraffe, a silly song, or a shared cup of tea, we need to remember that we are dealing with real humans, not numbers. This is comforting for me, because my skills are more like the entertainer than the soldier. I am at my best when I am supporting and interacting with those around me. Wherever I end up next year, I want to remain focussed on helping people be the best that they can be.