It would be false to say I didn’t always wish to join the UN system. Growing up in Siraha, in the southern plains of Nepal, I had always longed to travel through the rolling hills and mountains serving my country. The opportunity was presented just after I completed my bachelor’s degree. Following a series of written exams and interviews, I got the opportunity to be part of the UN system in Nepal as a communication trainee at UNICEF.
At first, I felt just like a newborn. However, I gradually began to learn the skills needed to be part of a communication team, thanks to my brilliant mentor. I had already completed seven months at UNICEF, when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April 2015.
I remember it clearly even today.
It was a Saturday noon. At first, I was clueless about what was happening as I had never experienced such vibration before. Then I realized it was a very strong earthquake. Quickly, I grabbed onto a pillar and held tightly until the shaking stopped. I saw books falling down from the table, heard people screaming outside, as well as what sounded like three explosions. My mind was overwhelmed by the thought of the consequences of such a big disaster. Every passing second seemed like another life. As soon as the shaking stopped, I rushed out barefoot and barely dressed to look for my brother. I cried when I found him safe and we stayed outdoors the whole day, hungry and thirsty, with hundreds of people around us.
The frequent aftershocks, news of people killed and the mass fleeing of people from Kathmandu and other affected districts scared me as well. I was determined to go home. Before I could inform my supervisor, she invited me to be a part of the emergency response. I decided to go to the office. On the way to the office, I witnessed a peculiar scene: Absent were the usual Kathmandu traffic and noise, the shops were closed and the city looked deserted.
The office, however, was bustling with activity. There were many unfamiliar faces and our working space was crammed with the influx of the emergency response team. There were frequent meetings and consultations for the mobilization of relief efforts throughout the day. I was touched by the motivation of those around me and decided that I would do my best and contribute towards UNICEF relief and response for those affected by the earthquake.
In the days that followed, I traveled to the earthquake-affected districts accompanying visitors, who had come from all over the world, to highlight the needs of children and women here. I helped them collect the stories, photos and videos by providing interpretation services as well as handling various logistic aspects of their trip to these affected districts. I got the opportunity to work with media personnel from different countries, got to learn about them and their culture, and through their eyes, got to know my country better too. Working with them, seeing the way they worked also helped me to pick up skills on photography, taking interviews, as well as treatment of various issues around children and women.
I came to learn how difficult humanitarian work is, how nature itself became a hurdle, the difficult mountain terrain and the weather – be it the monsoon rains, the scorching heat or the cold in the winter.
For the first time in life, I was also exposed to areas and experiences that I had never imagined. Wherever I traveled, I saw people grieving for those who died during the earthquake. People were injured and rendered homeless without food, water and medicines. Many countries responded with quick relief and rescue efforts and also our ground work added synergy in realizing the scale of the relief needed.
I also saw UNICEF mobilize its resources as promptly as possible. It responded quickly and set up Child Friendly Spaces to provide a safe and fun environment for children, established shelter homes for pregnant and nursing mothers as well as bearing all their costs of living, food and medicine. They also helped establish border check points with partners to combat trafficking as well as providing cash grants for vulnerable population.
I feel proud of these and other UNICEF achievements for the earthquake affected. Although the earthquake was a disaster for the country, it was also a beginning for all of us to learn from it as well as share the experience and knowledge with others in the rest of the nation.
Sanjeev Singh is a communications consultant working with UNICEF Nepal