Thursday, May 14, 2015

I Survived to Serve

"If not us, then who? 
If not me and you
Right now! It's time for us to do something.
If not now, then when? Will we see an end
To all this pain? 
It's not enough to do nothing, 
It's time for us to do something."
- Matthew West, 'Do Something'

The April 25 earthquake signalled skies falling for the nation of Nepal. But a people is gathering strength and shaking the dust and rubble off themselves; determined to follow one cause: to raise their beloved land up from the ashes. 

That cause is also mine. After all, I survived for a reason. I could've been in those places that had collapsed during the earthquake - in fact, I visited them frequently! But I'm alive today, and now I can't just sit around, waiting for everything to go back to normal. No - I survived so that I can change the nation of Nepal for the better.

The best way I'm taking in order for me to make that change, is joining my church in initialising relief operations to many parts of Kathmandu and nearby locations.

(Photos courtesy of Mags Yap)
We began immediately, on the day right after the earthquake, and my family opened our house as the centre for relief operations. Given, work was slow for the first few days, due to difficulties in finding transportation and any open stores to buy goods from, and that our house had no electricity and water. 

It was also discouraging to hear stories of the nationwide devastation, of our friends who stayed outside in mistrust of their houses, even seeing our whole neighbourhood in darkness, and especially hearing about the rumours about another big earthquake coming, which had absolutely no validation at all, but a lot of people believed.

Yet, despite all the difficulties, we endured. And in the next days after that, the electricity returned, stores reopened, and more volunteers arrived to help! 

In the course of our first week, I joined our Volunteer Care Department, which had me helping in the kitchen and doing errands around the house all day.

Even if we were the back-stage crew of the relief operations, my team gave our best efforts to feed and clean up the house for everyone. We did our jobs with our 100%, because we were assured that the part we played was just as important as any other part, and that we're all in this together.

(Photo courtesy of Mags Yap)
Keen to let me experience how we were directly making a difference, my dad grafted me in with the Ground Team the next week, in which the volunteers travel to, meet, and give relief goods to affected communities.

My first experience was in visiting tent communities in a municipality called Sanagaun. The first sight that met me as I got off our cab, was a group of smiling children, taking shelter from the sweltering mid-morning sun inside a parked tuk-tuk. I curiously watched as they followed us as we made way to the edge of their tent community. 

I was then given the task to hand out candy to them, and it only seemed natural to make friends, even if my Nepali was shameful > o <

Well, recalling the stories of people I met while being in the field is the most important thing I can take away from them, as:

"The story of the Nepal Earthquake is not a story about rubble. It’s the story about perseverance, about people helping one another, about smiling in the face of disaster, about the youth mobilizing through social media to organize and moving as one.”

 — Dr. Fahim Rahim

After talking to the kids, I wandered around the mass of buzzing activity, and found myself making friends with two new volunteers. Their names were Shreya and Gita, and were already friends through being in the same nursing class. They took me over to another girl by the sidelines of the distribution. She was the same age as I am, but she'd lost her house to the earthquake. We included her in our conversation, and walked out to the neighbouring, beautiful wheat fields at the same time. 

Even if our conversations weren't as impacting as the other volunteers had by speaking lasting and powerful encouragements, they taught me how just being there means a lot to someone who needs it.

Next, we visited another tent community in the same municipality. There, I met a father and his 7 year-old daughter. Her older sister, who was also the same age as I am, died in saving her during the earthquake. Theirs was a devastating story, and I couldn't help but let my heart grieve for them, but also recognise her sister as a selfless hero. Later, when they'd finished talking about how they could help her, as she needed medicine and check-ups for her broken arm, my dad asked me to pray for her. 

Since most of the people in the tent didn't understand English very well, I wondered if my prayer mattered to them. My doubts were assuaged when later, Saurabh dai, another volunteer, told me that even if they didn't understand my words, they knew that it was from my heart, and were really touched by it. Which next brings us to his story… 

Saurabh dai is a young dance teacher who really loves kids. Like, every time he goes out with the Ground Team, all the children of the places we visit flock over to him. There's just that joy and child-like wonder in his heart - that's irresistibly fun to take part of - which he shares not only to the kids, but to everyone around him!

After hearing about his life story, unique views on life, and how he's really found his passion and calling, I decided that he is also a person different from the crowd, and who's bent on making a difference. Keeping that in mind while seeing him help out with us is inspiring, and makes me think that I'm in the company of heroes.
As a friend of mine said after hearing about him, "We need more Saurabhs in the world!" 

I also met Rubita, the 16 year-old sister of one of our church members, whom my Dad was excited to introduce me to, and was excited to see me as well! 

Their family lost their whole house, but Dad encouraged her by saying, "Look at your house, it is like your SLC [the exam they have to pass so they can advance to their pre-college courses]. You have to pass this test. You cannot give up; if you have to retake, then so be it, but I guess you will be in the distinction category. The fact that you are still alive, God is giving you hope and He is not done with you -- you will have a great future!" 

Despite going through disaster, in meeting her I could really see that she's a determined and aspiring person, who has an amazing potential and future. 

Other than the stories of those friends which influenced my life, I can't leave out the overwhelming support from people all over the world. Prayers, encouragements, and provisional support poured in like waterfalls from churches, relatives, good friends, family friends, old friends we forgot existed, acquaintances, celebrities, politicians, and especially my barkada back in Manila.

As Christian folk band Rend Collective expressed in a call to prayer for Nepal, "We are all one family." 

Another thing worth mentioning is that our efforts were featured in a report by Jiggy Manicad, from GMA-7, one of the TV stations with widest coverages in the Philippines. It lifted the hearts of my countrymen to know that we were helping out over here, and spurred us on to keep doing what we're doing.

(Photo courtesy of Tita Normi Herrera!)
We also met Atom Araullo. woooooo xD
(Photo courtesy of TJ Borras.)
And our gratitude to everyone supporting us cannot be measured. Really, thank you to everyone who's letting us know that we are not alone in this, for holding us up with the hope that we will rise, we will come alive - together.

Now, I believe that God allowed this disaster not to pull Nepal down, nor to fill its streets with terror and hopelessness, but so that He can revive, deliver, and free this nation, and give her peace, prosperity, hope, and a future unparalleled to any of her former glories. He will do this because Nepal is a nation He so dearly loves, and Nepal belongs not to any disaster, not to any hopelessness, not to any depravity, but she belongs only to Him.

Today, I stand with that hope, and I know that God is changing Nepal through each and every one of us who know what we are:

"You are not victims – you are survivors, you are heroes, and you will rebuild the country!" 
- Louino Robillard, in a message from Haiti to Nepal

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Day Everything Changed

This is an account of my experience during the earthquake on the 25th of April, which shook the nation of Nepal, and after, the world. The second account of what happened to us after will come shortly. 

It was a fine Saturday morning in the city of Kathmandu. Considering it was the only holiday everyone had in a week, a welcome breather for the youth who'd been burned out by studying and taking exams (as it was their gruelling Exam Month), and that, even though the upcoming summer was still giving us a cold shoulder, generally everyone was in a good mood.

I was at church, listening intently to an awesome sermon in our fairly small but wonderful congregation. It already felt like an amazing day, and I was looking forward to what else would unfold when we would go out into the city.

Then the earthquake came, and the whole city would never be the same again. 

* * *

The time was 11:50 AM. Our on-fire preacher was in the middle of explaining a biblical illustration, which happened to be the one of the apostles Paul and Silas's adventures. Most Christians are familiar with the story:

Instead of grumbling about having been falsely accused and thrown into the worst prison cell in Philippi, Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns, showing their faith in believing that God is in control - while the other prisoners listened. Suddenly, a huge earthquake shook the whole place - and they were all set free! (We learned later that other churches had the same illustration at the same time. Coincidences? I think not.)

Our speaker was impressing one of her points, when suddenly the electricity went out. I thought it was our usual power cut, but that assumption turned on its heels when the ground started moving like I was in a boat on extremely turbulent waters. Right then and there it struck me that it was a mighty earthquake.

Being a Filipino, I grew up with disasters, so I calmly held onto my seat then sloooooowly walked to my family. But all around me in the dark, I saw people running out of the hall in a mad dash, so I facepalmed and was distracted for a few seconds.

Eventually the ground settled, and in a few minutes we called everyone back in to continue the service. We were actually laughing while connecting the previous illustration with the earthquake, shaking each other by the shoulder, smiling, and saying, "How can it be so exact!", "Man, what an instant application!", and "Really, God?". I think our minds were not thinking clearly to process what actually happened because of that, and it showed how oblivious we all were. 

It wasn't until we went out into the city that we realised the seriousness of what the magnitude 7.8 earthquake had caused. 

The first things I saw going out into Kathmandu were people haphazardly gathered in the middle of the road, and debris all around. I hadn't seen the full extent of the effects so far, yet I was struck with that unfamiliar and foreign feeling you get when you go to some place for the first time - but I've been living in this place for four years!

The next thing that astonished me was the old firehouse three minutes away from our house. It was broken down as if a giant had decided it was a cake and greedily sliced half of it, and the rubble blocked our usual route home. 

I've passed that building a thousand times - now it was apparent that many things would be and already were different in a city where, before, the status quo remained unchallenged.

We joked about how we all looked like we were from a TV series' title card. The firehouse is in the background.
As we unlocked our house (which only suffered a few minor cracks and one busted water pipe, thankfully) and locked it up again, we met two families from our neighbourhood, who were sitting outside on the ground, terrified. So when we were about to leave, my dad encouraged them by saying, "Don't worry. Everything will be fine, it will soon go back to normal soon… we'll all get through this." 

I still find myself saying those same words to others, and to myself, until now.

They looked kinda like this, but with no plastic chairs and more disgruntled family members.
Later, we met some college students during one pretty strong aftershock. One of the girls in the group began to panic, so my parents instantly instructed them all to calm down - because panic spreads fast and has dire consequences, as we were all warned of

Dad and I walked over to their little band, then the students and I listened intently as he gave us stats on the earthquake, lessons he learned from his International Disasters Resource Network trainings back in 2011, and his first-hand experiences with earthquakes and other disasters in the Philippines. Eventually this led to him befriending some of the guys, and they left relieved and grinning.

After that episode, we were on the road again - from the south of Kathmandu we rode to the north, and back again. From my window, I saw almost all of Kathmandu huddled in the middle of the streets and fields, and many buildings rent down. We also saw the casualties on the national news and that's when we fully realised that the struggle was real. 

As the sun went down, one of our Filipino friends called to invite us to stay for dinner at their house. We arrived, and found they were also pretty shaken up; the kids were spending the day swimming at a sports facility, but their parents were at home, so parental instincts took over, and they unfortunately both tripped down the stairs trying to reach them as fast as they could. They also own two orphanages, and all the kids and staff were over at the place. We had prayers around a bonfire, and it made us assured that we would get through the catastrophe together, by the grace of God.

But even amidst the warm coffee talk between the grown-ups, my usual awkward conversation with a friend, Keri Smith-ing with her younger sister while 'collecting' tiny, colourful stones from a table centrepiece, and eating a nice, warm dinner, the air felt uneasy. More aftershocks came and I shook with vertigo.

I'd already known about the casualties, the devastation, and the reality that our whole world had changed, but I only started piecing everything together - so I could comprehend what kind of mosaic I'd made with those fragments - at their house. The process of trying to understand brought clarity, yet it also began to frighten me because the situation was bigger than I. 

Now I feel ashamed with that as my response, but I think that, maybe, God allowed me to feel that way, so I can get a better hold on how He's even bigger than anything that scares me.

At 10:30 PM, we finally decided to go home. As we boarded the cab, an eerie feeling overtook us, for all around was silence and darkness. Because everyone slept outside under tents in total fear, all the houses were completely empty and dark, and the whole city was in a blackout. I recall telling myself, "The city is in terror."

That phrase affected me, and I immediately distracted myself by checking the Internet upon arriving back home. A little later, Dad came to our bedroom and prayed. When he finished, I replied to two Facebook messages asking how I was, wrote a summary of events for my barkada, including these words:

"It's really hard to see Kathmandu like this, because absolutely everyone is scared out of their wits, and they don't know what to do next. It breaks my heart, and I'm really just crying out to God to deliver this people whom He loves.

The earthquake has terrified me too, but I know I must be strong for the Nepalis, and not conform to the pattern of this world. 

Tomorrow, we'll be reaching out to our church members and other people, and will also have a prayer meeting. I really covet your prayers too; let us storm the gates of Heaven together :D

Through all this, I can come out and praise God because He's still in control of everything, and His plans are not to harm us, but to give us a hope and a future."

But I left my feelings unresolved, because I was tired and confused; the remedy of which is a good night's sleep. 

After that, I closed the lights and drew my blanket over me, going for the remedy rather than trying to fix myself. 

The tsunami of scattered thoughts I'd usually entertain before sleeping washed over my mind and raged for thirty minutes, then was still. Yet on the brink of falling asleep, I would hear noises that would jolt me awake, and one of my breaths was suddenly cut short, which alarmed me. That night, I was awoken four times by the freaky 'ping's of our QuakeAlarm and the aftershocks themselves. The last one was magnitude 6.5 during 5 AM, and I could hear people screaming outside and the voices of our parents' and the friends who'd stayed over. 

After a while, I stood up. Pale blue light filtered through our windows. The night was over -a new day had begun.

(The next post is here!)