What Really Matters: Reflections on the Experience of Displacement from the Earthquake in Central Nepal

By Katherine Baxter (Staff Writer)

The Earthquake, Kathmandu, April 25th

The ground turned to water, and thunder was coming from below. The bricks shook apart from each other, and the birds burst out of the trees and circled frantically overhead. One minute you’re walking down the street, carrying with you a feeling of stability and security and the next you’re being swept away by a current of chaos and panic, with nothing but a profound feeling of being completely trapped by the uncertainty of what’s to come next.

Perhaps the cruelest thing about an earthquake is the feeling of physical and psychological insecurity that follows, never knowing when the ground beneath your feet might turn on you again. You imagine trembles in every movement; you hear the earth rumbling in every sound. And this fear stays with you. Even now, whenever the washing machine starts spinning or a bus roars past my flat I feel a surge of panic in the pit of my stomach. And in the months following this disaster, I’ve realised that the important thing to take away from the experience is an appreciation for the fact that this feeling of fear and insecurity is not specific to this particular event in Nepal; rather, traces of this are present in all events that suddenly, forcibly displace people, disrupting the safety of today and the certainty of tomorrow. That said, it’s also in these moments that we might have the chance to discover what in our lives has the capacity to mitigate this feeling of fear and insecurity, and perhaps also the space to reflect on our prioritisation of what matters most to us in life, reminding us not to take those things for granted.

My Experience

When the shaking started I ran as quickly as I could to the nearest tree and held onto it for dear life, counting on its roots to anchor me and its branches to deflect any debris. In those moments while I was clinging on to this tree waiting for the shaking to stop, I went to a place in my mind where my priorities suddenly became clear. It suddenly seemed ridiculous that I was living alone in Nepal, thousands of miles away from all those people who matter most to me in the world. I suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to be at home, sitting on my patio with my family watching the sun go down over the Colorado Rocky Mountains. This was the image that immediately came to my mind when the shaking began.

‘Home’ is obviously something that means very different things to different people. Home might be found within another person, in a physical space or even in an idea. Home might be a quiet place you carry around inside yourself or a song you turn to for comfort on your iPhone. It might be your morning routine of coffee and eggs, or of lighting incense and saying prayers. It might be the smell of fresh cut hay, lavender fields or malt whiskey in the air. It might be the sound of silence just before dawn, or the frenzy of a bustling, honking city that never sleeps. It might be looking up at a clear blue sky, or looking out at the rain tricking down your window from a fireside couch. It might be those few times a year when you gather together with close family and friends. It’s likely to be a combination of these things, constantly changing and evolving as experience accumulates and takes on new meanings, and therefore it’s also likely to be something you are continually forced to create and recreate in response to the pressures and opportunities that pull your body, heart and mind in different directions. Whatever it may be, it seems that we all have those things—large and small-- that we rely on to make us feel like our complete selves, to get us through each day and keep going. And it’s very easy to take these things for granted.

For those that have been forced from their homes, whether because of an earthquake, a civil war, flooding, drought, etc. etc., ‘home’ takes on a new meaning, and I’ve always been curious about how people rediscover a sense of home, place and belonging when suddenly all of these things so easily taken for granted vanish. When the pieces that give meaning to our everyday lives suddenly become scattered and out of reach, how do we piece that meaning back together again? Once basic survival needs are met, what then matters most? What keeps us going and allows us to feel OK, even if not complete? What are those things that mitigate the feeling of fear and insecurity that often accompany experiences of forced displacement? With so many people around the world being forced from their homes, I believe that having a nuanced understanding of the answer(s) to this question is tremendously significant, and furthermore having humanitarian response programs that revolve around these nuanced answers is essential, because in these moments of crisis, I found that emotional needs are often felt as viscerally as physical needs.  

After the initial shaking subsided I rushed back to the home of the Nepali family I was staying with. They were gathered outside in a nearby grassy open-space with others from their neighborhood, and almost everyone was in tears. The first thing I thought to ask was, “is everyone alright?!” Fortunately no one in the family had been seriously injured. The family I was staying with had 4 generations all living in the same house, albeit on different floors. Total there were 17 of us under one roof, the oldest being the 72-year-old grandmother and the youngest a 1-year-old baby boy. Each of us experienced the earthquake very differently and found it challenging in our own particular way. The Grandmother, for instance, had a very hard time getting around and was therefore very slow to get out of the house when the earthquake struck and very uncomfortable once she left it. The baby boy would not stop crying (his sleep and feeding routine had been seriously interrupted), and his 3 year-old sister wouldn’t speak and was wearing a blank, confused expression on her face, where there was normally a relentless smile and a voice that wouldn’t stop singing. The oldest brother in the house had been in Japan when the Tsunami hit, and so he was coping with the re-emergence of residual trauma from that experience. His younger sister needed to electronically submit paperwork the following day to meet a deadline for a study abroad program she had her heart set on, which would now be impossible to do. And for me, the greatest challenge was being so far away from my family and friends with no way to contact them and no idea what my next step would be. Though we all felt the same ground shaking beneath our feet, we each experienced it differently.

That night approximately 50 of us from the neighborhood slept outside on the grassy ground under tarps to shield us from the unfortunate rain that wouldn’t stop falling. Smaller groups formed among those families who were close friends, and these groups would come together to collectively make tea, rice and a bit of dahl over a small fire to get everyone through the night. Those with extra hot water or rice would share with those who hadn’t any; those with extra blankets would lay them over whoever looked the coldest. A radio was placed in the center of everyone, blaring crackled news and frantic updates in Nepali. I can’t remember if it was placed in the center of the group or if people circled around it... It was left on constantly, until the battery died. In the evenings the young adults/late teenagers would sit around under the tarp playing small wooden instruments and signing traditional Nepali songs, and within 10 minutes nearly everyone had joined in, smiling and singing as one, despite the heavy rain seeping into our bed for the night. This collective caretaking and space sharing continued on for 5 days.

One of the most striking things I noticed throughout this time was how children and young people somehow kept finding ways to transform this experience into an opportunity for play and fun. To my left there was a group of 10-15 year olds playing cards and laughing. To my right, there were two 6 year old boys sword fighting with sticks quite dramatically, and in front of me, three little girls between the ages 3-5 twirling around in circles until they became so dizzy they’d fall to the ground giggling and tickling each other. I began to realise after speaking to some of these younger children that they saw this more as a big sleepover party with everyone they knew than as a disaster-- the key part of this being that ‘everyone they knew’ was there. What mattered most to them in these moments was that those people dearest to them were all present and well: family, friends and the like. Even though the physical structures they lived in were cracked and uninhabitable, these children were fortunate because their emotional care centers were still intact, and so they were able to find joy, humor and comfort in this situation, whereas others who had lost loved ones, and I, who had none of the people who mattered most to me within reach, found that more challenging.

This made me consider the interplay between forced displaced and what I’ll call ‘displacement by choice’. After witnessing and experiencing firsthand how important it was to have loved ones within reach to mitigate the stresses of this experience, I began asking myself: how is it that so many people around the world, once they ‘grow up,’ are able to justify living so far away from those people who mean the most to them? I started to wonder: how many people are living ‘emotionally displaced’ lives, not by force, but by choice? And where do we draw the line between force and choice? Is a Nepali migrant worker who chooses to go work in Dubai in order to pay his daughters’ school fees the same as the corporate executive who hasn’t been ‘home’ to see his family in 6 months? Or what about the Filipino careworker living in London, looking after other people’s children and sending remittances home to her children so they can eat each day? Is she the same as the international student living far away from home in pursuit of educational opportunities to secure a job? How do we draw the line between people who are forcibly displaced and people who are experiencing a similar feeling of displacement, but by choice? How many people around the world go to bed each night missing someone, no matter how much they are able to mitigate this absence with modern technologies like skype or facetime, or rationalise it as something they ‘just have to do, for now’? Obviously, there are complex tradeoffs involved, but should this feeling be so commonplace? Is this the contemporary state of being under global capitalism? These are big questions for which I don’t have any answers, but I can say that my experience in the earthquake made me do some soul-searching with regards to my own feelings of emotional displacement, and moreover with regards to my decision to live this way. To put plainly, this experience made me realise how much I miss those people who matter most to me being physically present in my everyday life and wonder why I had so easily been able to justify leaving them behind.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake I witnessed a tremendous amount of compassion, solidarity and kindness as Nepalis banded together in the face of the devastation. I found that the presence and well-being of friends and loved ones was the main factor which fostered resilience in the aftermath and enabled people to find opportunities for joy, humor and play in the midst of the chaos, loss and devastation, thereby mitigating the collective feeling of fear and insecurity. Though I’m sure there were some who may have taken advantage of the situation and caused further chaos, the majority of people I witnessed did just the opposite and sought simply to comfort and be comforted by those dearest to them. In such situations we are forced to consider what matters most to us, and subsequently to reflect on how accurately our priorities and life choices reflect this. From the many conversations I had with people on the ground after the event and from my experience firsthand, it became clear that, by and large, other people were what mattered most. So I suppose the take away message simply becomes: whether those people dear to you are near or far, whether they are removed from you by force or you from them by choice (1) don’t take them for granted; (2) interrogate the logic commonly used to justify leaving them behind; and (3) don’t underestimate how much you need them, both in the everyday and in times of crisis.