In early September, Chheten Tamang arrived at the airport in her home country of Nepal, just as she had many times before. Her relatives were there to greet her, but this time the usual hugging and kissing, the warm greetings and excited updates, were strained and sparse.
“I was like what am I going to say?” Tamang said. “It’s like my heart was totally frozen. No words came out. Hardly no tears came out.”
What loomed in their memories was the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the country the previous April. It was the first time Tamang had visited since the April 25, 2015 quake that toppled buildings, killed 8,000 people and injured nearly 18,000.
In the Langtang Valley where Tamang grew up, the earthquake triggered an avalanche that swept through with the force of half of an atomic bomb. The village of Langtang itself, located at 12,500 feet about 50 miles north of Kathmandu, was completely wiped out by the wave of snow, ice and rock.
Tamang, who now lives in Flagstaff, lost her mother, sister and brother-in-law, a total of 30 family members and nearly 200 community members.
For months, she followed the lives of the village’s survivors, including her brother, sister and father, through Facebook and phone calls and worked locally to raise money to help the community recover.
September was the first chance she had to make the trip to help in person. The trip was full of tears but also tender moments of love and gratitude among those who did survive, Tamang said.
Over the past year, the Flagstaff resident’s story has helped catalyze major assistance efforts locally — hours of volunteer work, multiple fundraisers and thousands of dollars in donations.
So far, about $25,000 from the Flagstaff area has been sent to the people of Tamang’s village to provide temporary food and shelter and then help them rebuild what had been their real life Shangri-La.
FLAGSTAFF TO NEPAL
Leading the charge to organize fundraising efforts, collect donations and direct support to Langtang’s residents is Meredith Potts, executive director of the Flagstaff International Relief Effort.
For years, the nonprofit has focused its work on public health and poverty alleviation across Mongolia, but Tamang’s personal connection to a community so deeply impacted by the earthquake propelled FIRE to broaden its mission to assist recovery efforts in Nepal, Potts said. The valley was unique in the totality of the destruction it experienced and Potts said she saw a chance to affect significant change there. Thanks to Tamang’s relationships, the organization knew it would be able to place aid directly in the hands of the people who need it, Potts said.
Within a month of the earthquake the nonprofit organized three events in town and raised $20,000, with three quarters of that coming from Flagstaff, Potts said. All of the money goes to support the people in the Langtang Valley.
Right away, FIRE used some of the money to help four families, including Tamang’s relatives, with immediate needs of clothing, blankets, food and medical treatment.
Then, they held off for a few months when the village’s 400 survivors were transported to a temporary camp at a monastery in Kathmandu where they were given food and shelter for about five months.
It was when they had to leave and live on their own that the villagers’ need swelled dramatically and FIRE again stepped in to help, Potts said. Crowded into apartments throughout Kathmandu, the Langtangpas lacked bedding, clothing, cooking supplies and food, all of which FIRE bought and provided to them. The nonprofit also helped cover rent for some people and the cost of some minor surgeries.
Tamang was there at the time and it was her job to find the families in the most dire straits. She went door to door to every apartment, gathered lists of what was needed then went to local stores to buy cooking supplies, propane tanks, blankets, clothes and other supplies.
Though the summer and fall, FIRE provided aid to a total of 47 families and also hired two Langtang residents as its country director and program assistant to help coordinate the distribution of resources.
The task of rebuilding the village of Langtang began in the fall when the trail to the valley was repaired. Potts traveled to Nepal in November and December to survey the situation and talk to village members.
“To see the optimism and resilience as well as the single mindedness and sense of community and cooperation, all those factors really solidified our long term commitment for sustainable programming,” Potts said.
The 116 families who lost homes in the village of Langtang have formed a cooperative, elected a group of leaders and agreed to split all donations among themselves so everyone has equal resources to rebuild. So far, they have raised about one third of the $3 million they estimate they will need in total.
For some reason though, a group of elders has been left out of those rebuilding plans, Potts said. That is the group where FIRE is putting its next efforts.
The group of nine to 10 elders have no family, no money and no way to contribute to the rebuilding effort, she said. They couldn’t afford to move to Kathmandu during the winter following the earthquake, so they stayed up at 13,000 feet in the Langtang Valley area, living in makeshift homes made out of rocks piled together, tarps or some other tent structure, Potts said.
In March FIRE delivered 1,100 pounds of food, vitamins, blankets and mattresses to the elders, but going forward the organization’s goal is to raise money to build them permanent homes.
That process is where FIRE’s most recent fundraising work comes in.
5,000 POUND OF CLOTHES
This spring, FIRE received 5,000 pounds of outdoor clothing collected by citizens in the Sun Valley, Idaho area. Realizing the complicated logistics and cost of getting those clothes to needy recipients in Nepal, the group asked if FIRE could sell the clothes in Flagstaff, then use the money to support its efforts in Langtang.
Potts agreed and decided the best way to sell the clothes would be to open FIRE’s own temporary store. In early March, Fireworks opened its doors at 113 East Birch. The store boasts colorful handmade prayer flags made by students from Sun Valley, photos of Nepal and racks stuffed with vests, jackets, sweaters and more.
Potts estimated there are 3,000 items total and said she expects to net $20,000 to $30,000 if all of them get sold.
The funds will be used to build homes for the neediest elders with the benefit of infusing money into the local economy, Potts said.
In addition to funds, FIRE would like to start facilitating opportunities for volunteers from the Flagstaff area to help the Langtangpas rebuild, Potts said. Right now, a major obstacle is a shortage of labor, she said.
In the longer term, FIRE hopes to work on economic development as well as cultural preservation projects in Langtang. Potts has already started to document the village’s rebuilding process.
The theme, she said, is “Langtang rising.”