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Brief text from earthquake zone is huge relief, but big challenges await Nepal

Courtesy of the Advocates for Human Rights
The author with students in Nepal.

“All our SPCS family r safe,” read the text message I received from Anoop Poudel, headmaster at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) in Nepal.

Prestholdt
Jennifer Prestholdt

It was Monday night, and we had been desperately trying to reach Anoop and others connected with SPCS since Saturday’s devastating 7.8 earthquake and its aftershocks. Our concern grew as the death toll mounted in the Kathmandu Valley. What a relief to learn that the teachers and 340 students at the school, as well as their families, were safe!

The new school year had just started at SPCS, but school was not in session when the earthquake hit. In Nepal, Saturday is the only day when school is not in session. Many people believe that, had it been a school day, the numbers of dead and injured in Kathmandu and throughout the Kathmandu Valley could have been much higher.

The Advocates for Human Rights, based in Minneapolis, has been partnering with the Sankhu-Palubari community since 1999 to provide free education for low-income children who would otherwise be working in brick yards or in the fields. In my role with The Advocates for Human Rights,’ I coordinate The Advocates’ Nepal School Project. I was in Nepal just a few weeks ago with a team of volunteers to conduct our annual monitoring visit.

The school provides a quality education to children in grades pre-K through 10. Students’ standardized test scores are among the highest in Nepal. And in 2014 the school was awarded Nepal’s prestigious National Education Service Felicitation Award. Graduates are now studying at universities, preparing to become doctors, social workers, teachers, and agronomists; many plan to return to their village to pay it forward and to improve the community’s quality of life. Their contributions will be even more important in the aftermath of the earthquake.

The children are dedicated students, with school in session from 7 a.m.–5 p.m. for most of the year. Many walk a great distance to get to school, some as long as two hours each way. The school is especially important for girls, who make up 52 percent of the student body. When SPCS began, girls often left school at an early age to marry or work. Now, they are staying and graduating because families have experienced the benefits of education. (You can read the inspiring story of SPCS’ first female graduate in Kanchi’s Story.)

UNICEF estimates that nearly 1.7 million children in Nepal are severely affected by the earthquake and its aftershocks. (As of Tuesday, there have been 62 aftershocks with magnitudes over 5.) Most of our students, who come from extremely poor agricultural families, are included in UNICEF’s number.

Anoop sent me several more texts after the first, describing heavy damage in the area of the eastern Kathmandu Valley where the school is located. Media sources and other Nepali contacts also confirm extensive destruction in the Sankhu area. While we don’t have a lot of information yet, Anoop reported that he believes that at leat 95 percent of the students and teachers have lost their homes in the earthquake. They are living outside in fields and through severe thunderstorms. Tents and other life-sustaining supplies have not reached them. The first relief teams are reportedly scheduled to arrive in the area yet this week. One small glimmer of hope is that, unlike Kathmandu, people in the Sankhu-Palubari area have access to a water source.

Our hearts go out to everyone in our SPCS family, as well as to the millions of other Nepalis affected by the “Black Saturday” earthquake. At The Advocates, we believe support for basic human needs such as water, food, and medical assistance in Nepal is the most urgent need. We encourage people to give to reputable international humanitarianassistance organizations involved in the earthquake relief effort (you can find more information in the links below). In the long term, Nepal will need sustainable rebuilding and development programs.

Because education is essential to reducing poverty and inequality, the best way The Advocates can support the rebuilding of Nepal is to ensure that the education of the students at our school continues with the least amount of interruption possible. We remain focused on that goal.

Contributing to the earthquake relief effort in Nepal: 

Jennifer Prestholdt is the deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the director of its International Justice Program. The organization is a nonprofit based in the Twin Cities and marking its 30th anniversary this year.

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