Earthquakes in their native Nepal galvanize graduate students

Nirmala Lekhak

When the first of several devastating earthquakes struck Nepal on April 25, 2015, Case Western Reserve University graduate students Nirmala Lekhak and her husband, Tirth Bhatta, felt an urgent and deep-seated need to help their home country.

While they have not been able to visit Nepal in the year since the quakes, the couple has launched a series of fundraising efforts to rebuild remote villages and schools there.

“We knew we had to do this. We couldn’t go back home, so we are doing what we can in Cleveland,” said Lekhak, a PhD student at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, and a native of Katmandu City. “Our goal is to reach poor people, lower-caste groups and people living in rural areas.”

On the eve of a fundraiser presented by the Case Nepali Student Association (founded by the couple), another earthquake struck Nepal on May 12, 2015. With the event taking on added weight and urgency, the couple and numerous other university students and faculty performed dances, music and shared stories from Nepal. A journalist even filmed the event for TV Asia, which aired a news story.

While deciding how to distribute proceeds from the event, the student group also collected donations online and rented a booth to sell homemade dumplings at the Cleveland World Festival.

They gave more than $4,000 to build a new village in the devastated area of Manekharka. Taking suggestions from displaced residents, the community is being reconstructed with a focus on sustainability in agriculture and in energy (with solar panels) in their schools and hospital; the effort is known as the Koshish project and is led by Vijay Pandey, a journalist in Nepal.

More than $4,000 total was given to the Nepali American Organization of Ohio, which provided funds to construct government schools in Nepal, and the Associations of Youth Organizations Nepal, which provided materials and laborers to aid construction.

Tirth Bhatta at Nepali Student Association fundraiser
Tirth Bhatta at a fundraiser.

All told, the couple and fellow Nepali graduate students raised—and donated—nearly $9,000. But as the one-year anniversary of the quakes arrives, there are still active fundraisers for a recovery effort that has long since left the headlines in the United States.

“We could have just donated some money and kept quiet. But what we’ve seen deeply pains us,” said Bhatta, who is pursuing his PhD is sociology in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Some people still do not have temporary housing even after a year.”

The couple has balanced its call to assist in Nepal’s recovery with their duties as graduate students.

Lekhak, who moved to the U.S. in 2005 for an undergraduate degree, is working on her dissertation proposal about how meditation may mitigate cognitive decline.

After graduating, both Bhatta and Lekhak hope to become professors and researchers.

“Given our other commitments as students, we have not been able to do as much as we’d like,” said Bhatta. “It pains us not to have been able to do more.”

Still, they persist: With a share of Lekhak’s prize money from winning the Marie Haug Award from University Center on Aging and Health—given to graduate students who have distinguished themselves in the study of aging—she helped buy iron roofing sheets and sacks of cement for a new home for elderly residents in Nepal’s Sindhupalchok village.

The Case Nepali Student Association is helping the Nepali American Organization of Ohio raise money for Mission Rebuild Nepal by registering a team of runners—known as “Charity Run for Nepal”—in the 2016 Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon on May 15. Runners can still sign up to join the team or email to learn more.

“We have some satisfaction that, even at a small scale, we helped those who live at the margins of society,” said Bhatta. “But we are not finished.”