Mercy Relief chief: Nepal quake victims are 'indomitable'
S'porean who went to Nepal describes difficulty of organising aid to villages devastated by earthquake
After waking up from his first night in Nepal last week, Mercy Relief chairman Michael Tay, 40, was shocked to discover he had slept through an aftershock that had sent other hotel guests scurrying for safety.
He had been so exhausted with the humanitarian organisation's preparations to help victims of the Nepal earthquake that he slept for five hours when he finally got to bed at midnight.
It was only when he woke up at 5am for an early start that he learnt about the aftershock from his fellow hotel guests.
Mr Tay and his team were among the many Singaporeans who have gone to Nepal to render aid in the wake of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25.
As of yesterday, the death toll has exceeded 7,300, with 18,000 injured and thousands still missing.
Just hours after returning to Singapore on Sunday, Mr Tay told The New Paper that he had checked into a hotel near the capital Kathmandu late last Wednesday.
He said: "When I went down for breakfast, the medical team from India were sharing how they had run out of their rooms after feeling tremors during the night.
"But I didn't feel a thing at all. I was so tired that I slept through the whole thing."
Mr Tay, who is executive director of The Hour Glass, spent five days travelling to remote villages to distribute relief supplies and set up mobile clinics and community kitchens.
But the real work started even before he left Singapore, such as working out the logistics.
He said: "Transportation was very scarce. We needed local drivers to navigate the roads because once you get out to the villages, there are no street signs.
"But many drivers did not want to risk being on the road just in case there were aftershocks. It took a lot of convincing. We had to call 15 to 20 transport companies just to get one vehicle."
The journey to the villages in Nepal's Bagmati Zone was an eye-opener.
He said: "The roads there are dirt tracks that are extremely bumpy. I ended up with a sore left arm from banging against the door so many times.
"I could see the edge of the cliff when I looked out of the window. One wrong turn and that's it."
DRIVEN BY NEED
Along the way, his team encountered desperate Nepalis who tried to get their hands on the Mercy Relief supplies, such as plates, rice and cooking oil.
"We met a couple of local villagers who tried to divert our relief supplies for themselves or their community.
"They stopped us and questioned us. But they were not criminals, they were simply driven by need."
Scenes of devastation greeted them at every turn.
He was particularly affected when they treated a woman whose husband had been killed. The man had been ill and could not escape when his house collapsed.
Mr Tay said: "The woman was suffering from severe dehydration because according to village tradition, she could not consume any salt for up to 13 days after a death in the family."
In a statement yesterday, Mercy Relief said it had staged operations in four remote mountainous areas that have not received aid from other agencies.
Yesterday, its disaster response and medical mission teams went to Kancha Gaun in Kavrepalanchok district, where 60 per cent of the 1,000 households have been affected by the quake.
Mercy Relief, which has received $800,000 in donations, has provided aid and medical assistance to almost 3,000 people so far.
Yet, despite suffering the country's worst earthquake in 80 years, the Nepalis showed their indomitable spirit, Mr Tay said.
"They are not victims, they are survivors. When we set up the community kitchen and mobile clinics, they were very happy. And I wouldn't expect anything less, they are hardy and resilient people."
Though international relief agencies are flocking to Nepal to help, Mr Tay believes it will be a long road ahead for the locals to rebuild their lives.
"To them, it must be like a circus has come to town with so many foreign faces coming in and looking around.
"But when the acute relief phase is over and the circus leaves town, the real work starts. I hope people will still remember Nepal then."
I could see the edge of the cliff when I looked out of the window. One wrong turn and that's it.
- Mr Michael Tay on the precariousness of the journey
They are not victims, they are survivors... And I wouldn't expect anything less, they are hardy and resilient people.
- Mercy Relief chairman Michael Tay, on the indomitable spirit of the Nepalese
School and alumni raise $25,000
He wanted to raise $20,000 to help earthquake victims in Nepal and had expected the fund raising to take a month.
But in just a week, Mr Ramasamy Ramesh (above) exceeded his target.
Close to half the amount raised came from the pockets of Bartley Secondary School students and staff.
The former president of Old Bartleyans' Association, which is now known as Bartley Alumni, told The New Paper: "Through word of mouth, we managed to raise $10,000 in less than a week. I'm very heartened by their generosity."
Mr Ramesh attended the now-defunct Bartley Primary School and Bartley Secondary School.
Both had a sizeable Nepali student population because of their close proximity to Mount Vernon Camp, where the Gurkha Contingent is housed.
On hearing about last Saturday's earthquake, Mr Ramesh's first thoughts immediately went to his ex-classmates living in Kathmandu.
He said: "The first thing I did was to reach out to them via WhatsApp. Thankfully, none of them was injured."
His ties with his Nepali classmates have remained strong over the decades.
"After class, I used to visit their homes and that was my first taste of Nepali culture. When they returned to Nepal, we kept in contact through phone calls and e-mails. We are as close as brothers and sisters."
Bartley Secondary School students, comprising locals and Nepalis, will present a cheque for over $25,000 to the Singapore Red Cross this afternoon.
Bartley Alumni plans to adopt a Nepali school to provide long-term support and promote cross-cultural exchange.
The school's principal, Mr Mohd Azhar Terimo, told TNP: "Bartleyans past and present share great ties of friendship with their Nepalese schoolmates.
"So when the earthquake happened, it was only natural for Bartleyans to step forward and help the people of Nepal during this time of need.
"Students, staff, parents and canteen vendors contributed generously to this effort. Concurrently, the Bartley Alumni also did a separate donation drive.
"I am very proud of the way the current students and alumni have responded to the crisis. Their deep sense of mission to render assistance to Nepal reflects the school motto - Facta Non Verba (deeds, not words)."
'Thank you, Singapore'
GRATEFUL: Miss Menuka Gurung (extreme right) with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Crisis Response Team at Kathmandu airport. - PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
She was at Kathmandu airport last Friday to pick up her sister when she saw a group of people carrying the Singapore flag.
When the Nepali realised the group was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Crisis Response Team, who was in Nepal to aid the earthquake relief efforts, she immediately knew what she had to tell them: "Thank you."
Miss Menuka Gurung, 25, told The New Paper from Kathmandu: "Their help means so much to us.
"I just wanted to thank them from the bottom of my heart, on behalf of all Nepalis."
When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck on April 25, Miss Gurung was just about to take a shower.
She said: "The ground was shaking like it has never shaken before and my conditioner and shampoo fell off the shelves.
"It felt like a theme park ride. I was convinced I was going to die."
Fortunately, Miss Gurung escaped unscathed. She said: "Singaporeans are very lucky they don't have to experience such things."
Though Nepali blood runs in her veins, Miss Gurung considers herself a true-blue Singaporean.
The daughter of a Gurkha guard was born and brought up here.
She attended Bartley Secondary School, a popular choice among the local Nepali population, as it was next to her home in Mount Vernon Camp.
Miss Gurung forged some of her fondest memories while in school here.
"Much of my school life revolved around my co-curricular activity, Red Cross. I remember training really hard for all the competitions like first aid and foot drills," she said.
"I made so many lasting friendships."
In 2008, after living here for 18 years, Miss Gurung returned to Nepal when her father's service with the Gurkha Contingent ended.
"When the time came for me to leave, it was like a doctor telling me I had only months to live.
"I had to go back to a home that wasn't my home."
Although it has been seven years since she left, Miss Gurung is still struggling to come to terms with it.
"I still find myself more Singaporean than Nepali. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I smell carrot cake or durian.
"I also miss local dramas like Growing Up, which I would watch every day. I used to have a big crush on Andrew Seow."
When TNP spoke to her over the phone yesterday, she could pass off as a Singaporean, peppering the interview with "lahs" and "lors".
"I may not have a pink identity card but I'm as Singaporean as can be," she said.
"Home will always be Singapore."