QandA: On the Ground in Nepal, Finding Hope and Heartache

Gideon Herscher, JDC's Director of International Partnerships, traveled to Nepal weeks after the country was struck by the worst earthquake in decades as part of JDC's emergency response and assessment team.

June 10, 2015

Gideon Herscher, JDC’s Director of International Partnerships, traveled to Nepal weeks after the country was struck by the worst earthquake in decades as part of JDC’s emergency response and assessment team.

There, he saw the devastation wrought by the natural disaster firsthand and took part in the rescue and relief efforts.

We recently spoke to him over the phone from Israel about his memorable experiences in the South Asian country.

Q: What were your impressions of the destruction when you arrived about two weeks after the earthquake?

A: As you fly into Kathmandu, past the peaks of some of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, I noticed colored spots on the earth. Those were tents for the hundreds of thousands of displaced/homeless Nepalis. The airport was eerily quiet, with mainly rescue workers gearing up and heading straight from the airport to the outskirts of Kathmandu where people were still trapped under the rubble from a second earthquake that had struck a few days before. Those that were in the airport, including myself, were focused on the many tasks that awaited us outside.

Q: Tell me about the work you were involved in on the ground: Where did you go? Whom did you meet?

A: As we surveyed different disaster zones, we observed newly homeless families. Disasters create confusion. Family roles and structure are often severely affected. It became apparent that women, and more specifically, women’s groups, would be key for family and livelihood rehabilitation. We engaged one women’s umbrella organization called HomeNet that recognizes that most women in Nepal work from home. Without a home, women are left to fend for themselves. Today, JDC is helping the women in these organizations bounce back as leaders in the rehabilitation of their country. Their resilience is nothing short of inspiring. They are indeed the pillars of their families and communities.

Q: How has JDC responded to the disaster? What help has it offered to victims?

A: The crux of the work my colleague Danny Pins and I were involved in was forging and strengthening relationships with local Nepali organizations whose mission and work resonated with JDC’s priorities.In almost every disaster, we see the great potential and resilience of children. Treating their trauma early and effectively can speed up the healing process and assuage chronic emotional problems. We spent significant time connecting a team of Israeli psychological experts from the Israel Trauma Coalition with teams of some of the most talented and dedicated teachers in Nepal. They would, in turn, be trained and impact 25,000 students in earthquake-affected areas. That reaches a wide catchment area, in a short period of time, with profound impact. In this case, Teach for Nepal was the ideal partner, and complemented JDC’s work here in Israel with Teach for Israel (Hotam).

Q: What were some of the most difficult moments?

A: We heard so many horrific stories of people being buried alive under tons of rubble. We came across mothers who simply refused to let their children out of their sight. We saw women struggling to breath calmly. Their emotional trauma (PTSD) had not yet been diagnosed, but it was clearly taking effect. There was not a lot of tear-shedding. There was a strong front presented by the survivors we met. And yet, when the Israeli team began working with them, we learned that every one of these women had been traumatized, and prior to the moment had not shared their experience with anyone.

Q: What was the most uplifting experience?

A: When one of the women leaders who was struggling with PTSD finally shared her story of surviving underneath the rubble. Within 10 minutes, her demeanor had changed. Her face had become hopeful.

Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced?

A: Leaving.

Sign up for JDC Voice Stories