How the earthquake in Nepal shook parts of Nantucket.
Just twelve days before a magnitude 7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal, claiming over eight thousand lives and destroying more than 70,000 homes, Nantucket celebrated its growing Nepalese community in an event hosted by the Nantucket Historical Association. The first of the Nepalese arrived on the island in 1999, when Tashi Lama, Geeta Nakarmi, and Debaki Thapa Magar came on an H2B seasonal working visa. Since then, the island’s Nepalese community has grown to eighty year-round residents. The event at the Whaling Museum put this community on joyous display, complete with colorful Nepali clothing, traditional dancing, and a bountiful Nepalese dinner. Less then two weeks later, when news of the earthquake reached the island, this exuberance was replaced with sorrow.
“I got the news as soon as the earthquake happened, because my sister-in-law called home,” remembered Nimesh Majarajan, who came to Nantucket in 2006 and now works as a private chef. “It was around 2:30 in the morning and we didn’t sleep at all after that.” Nimesh and his fellow Nepalese struggled to get in touch with their families and friends back home. The long wait for information was torturous, especially after Nimesh spotted one of his friend’s homes on the news; it was scattered on the streets of Kathmandu in a pile of rubble. While most of their immediate family and friends miraculously escaped with their lives, their homes and their very existence were razed.
Two young students visiting Nantucket on their way to Texas for college, Samriddha Acharya and Sajal Bhandari, were in Nepal when the earthquake struck. “I was having a lunch with my family,” said Samriddha, when a “strange sound” echoed through his house. He and his family ran out into the street, leaving their home, which was then totally destroyed by the earthquake. In the days that followed, Samriddha’s family of four was forced to live in a tent, along with the thousands of other Nepalese who have been displaced by the destruction.
Little needed to be said by the two boys in recounting the horrors of what they witnessed. The gravity of the experience was written on their faces and in their thousand yard stares. “I was alone,” began Sajal Bhandari. “All the things were shaking. And the sounds were very scary. And all the people were crying around me. And I was worried about my grandmother because she is not able to walk, so she was at my house, and…” His voice trailed off. The memory seemed all too vivid to continue. “The situation is not good now,” Sajal Bhandari concluded. “I want to give the message from all the Nepalese to please help our country and the people who are suffering from this earthquake.”
Here on Nantucket, the Nepalese community quickly organized. Within days of the earthquake, Nimesh and Shradha Khatri Chhetri, a Nantucket High School graduate who came to the island from Kathmandu in 2009, hatched the idea for a fundraising event and dinner. They also organized a candlelight vigil that started at the head of Main Street and paraded down and around to the Unitarian Meeting House, where Shradha spoke before the audience. “Today I am here, standing before you as a proud daughter of Nepal,” Shradha began, her voice trembling and tears welling in her eyes and spilling down her cherubic face. “I’m deeply sad. I’m seeing news every day, and it breaks my heart to see children cry and tears in people’s eyes back home. And I feel very hopeless being here. I cannot do anything.” She paused, struggling to maintain her composure. “I always wanted to represent Nepal on a big platform, but I never imagined that I would be standing here talking about people suffering back home and children not having enough water, food and shelter. I always thought I’d talk about how brave people are over there and how Nepal is rich in culture and history.” Since delivering these words at the vigil, Shradha pledged to return to her homeland to help the relief effort directly. “The US government hasn’t given us the green light to go yet,” she explained. But “I’m planning to volunteer in rural areas.”
The situation in Nepal has been most dire in remote areas such as the historic district of Gorkha where 90 percent of the homes and buildings were destroyed. Cut off from the supplies arriving to Kathmandu, the gravest need exists in these rural districts. “The people who are willing to help, should go to a remote area where there is no transportation, no food, no water, no network,” said Laxmi Mahat, whose husband’s family is from one of these communities. “These are people who have never seen a TV.” They need medicine, food, water, and shelter.
Here on Nantucket, the Nepalese community swiftly began coordinating a fundraising effort. With the help of the NHA’s Marjan Shirzad and the Community Foundation’s Margaretta Andrews, they opened a fund that would direct donations to Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross. The evening following the candlelight vigil, a potluck was held at the American Legion. Over four hundred attended, helping raise thousands of dollars. “I’ve been overwhelmed,” said Nimesh. “Every single person asks how things are going over there, and that means a lot to us. The love and support and community is amazing. We’re so lucky to live on this island.”
A little over a week after the potluck, another massive earthquake rumbled through Nepal. With much of the destruction already triggered by the April 25th quake, there were far fewer deaths and destruction, but the spirit and resolve of the nation were once again tested. However, if the Napalese community on Nantucket is any indication of the type of strength and bravery that’s found in their homeland, the world can trust that Nepal will rise again. “People of Nepal,” Nimesh said, “they talk with their eyes.” Here on Nantucket, those eyes are clear and looking towards a bright future for their homeland.