dear nepal

In 2010, when Yemen was for the first time flashing across the backdrop of the nightly news, when Americans were for the first time considering this small country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, I had recently relocated to Atlanta and, for the first time in four years, was not surrounded by a community of Yemeni women.

I am not Yemeni, and I suppose it’s rare that a non Arabic-speaking American woman would find herself immersed in Yemeni culture. But at the community center where I taught, we teachers were downright pampered by these surrogate grandmothers and considered friends by the young mothers and teenagers. We shared three hours a day, some for many years, and through the magic of the language classroom, in which few words are exchanged but everything is said, we became family.

When the bombs fell on Yemen, I sent letters from Atlanta to Chicago, written in my clearest handwriting, sentences more simple, more direct than I would feel comfortable with an American: I heard news of war in Yemen. I pray that your family is safe. I called former co-workers to relieve the sense of isolation I felt following this sad story so far from my community. Yemen, I sighed. Yemen, they replied. Enough said.

Then again, in 2012, when the civil war began in Syria.

That summer, I visited Chicago for a conference, and spent my free time wandering around my old neighborhood, visiting a few friends and spending time in a few of my favorite coffee shops. While boarding the bus heading west at the corner of Lawrence and Broadway, I glanced up, and met the eyes of Abdul. Abdul, who at age fifty-something had to flee Syria for the second time, after his work as a professor of political philosophy earned him the label “enemy of the state.” Abdul left behind his wife and his four daughters, all within my age range. He told me many stories about them, his hopes for their future together in America. He missed his family dearly during the year that he was in my English class, and told me that having a young teacher like me helped him feel connected to his daughters.

And here he was, on the #81 bus, smiling from ear to ear. His daughters were safe – not only safe – here with him now. Will you come to our house for lunch? Will you meet my wife and daughters? And just like that, I shared a meal, prepared for me by the women of his stories from home, who had joined their father just months before the Syria of their childhoods crumpled and fell. Syria.

This time, it’s Nepal. Listening to the news on my way home from work, I heard a story about Nepal “beyond the events of the last few days.” And listening, it struck me as odd that I find myself with such a heartfelt connection to this tiny (“the size of Arkansas”), landlocked country that rarely makes the news unless wealthy international dare-devils die attempting to break records on Mount Everest.

But when the ground shook in Kathmandu, it reverberated in Clarkston, Georgia. We are home to the Bhutanese diaspora: of the approximately 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali ancestry who were driven out of Bhutan around 1990 yet continue to be denied access to jobs or a path to citizenship by Nepal, more than 50,000 have been resettled in the US by the UNHCR. Of those, more than 9,000 live in the Atlanta area.  The school where I teach has roughly 300 Bhutanese families, but, born in the refugee camps along Nepal’s southeastern border and raised speaking Nepali with their families, these teens call themselves Nepali.

All weekend, the families of Clarkston made phone calls, located loved ones, checked on old friends, and mourned the loss of lives, homes, and legacies. All weekend we teachers combed the internet, unable to turn away from the horrors of collapsed buildings, decimated monuments, the ever-rising death toll.  I searched for some indication of if – or how badly – the refugee camps had been affected, but found nothing. It wasn’t until midday Sunday that I had heard, through former students, that the refugee camps and their residents had been unharmed in the disaster.

I am reminded that to a country, to a government, to a nation, refugee camps are but anthills, full of complex life but contained within allotted bounds, a nuisance – that is, if you bother to notice it. Had the earthquake struck just 300 miles east, maybe it would have opened the world’s eyes to the seven twenty-five year old but officially “impermanent” bamboo and thatch cities within Nepal’s borders but outside of its view.

One of my students earlier this year used to loudly and jokingly recite, I pledge allegiance to flag, of the United States of NEPAL…. One day I caught his eye as he recited his morning wisecrack and accused him: Why do you say that? Nepal didn’t let your family in… Nepal doesn’t offer you healthcare, or schooling, or opportunity… He got quiet, his joke spoiled. I know, ma’am, he said. I know. But he is Nepali, by virtue of his ancestry, his birth, and his declaration. And his homeland, so poor that 30% of the gross domestic product is earned in the form of remittances from families abroad, now faces a national catastrophe.  More than 5,000 people are dead, thousands more still unaccounted for. Already strained hospitals are bursting at the seams, an entire city sleeping under tarps and tents.

Nepal, like Syria and Yemen, isn’t mine. But the arms of my community stretch wide enough to hear its cries, and to respond in some small way, as a caregiver, as a listener, as a community builder.

Nepal, like Syria and Yemen, isn’t mine. But the arms of my community stretch wide enough to hear its cries, and to respond in some small way, as a caregiver, as a listener, as a community builder.

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Filed under Adult Education, atlanta, intercultural life & work

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