Agony grows among Nepalese in US as quake death toll rises

AP News
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Posted: Apr 30, 2015 5:48 PM
Agony grows among Nepalese in US as quake death toll rises

NEW YORK (AP) — As the days trickle by after the devastating earthquake in Nepal, the silence has brought agony for Nepalese-Americans still waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones.

Some pray. Others clutch their cellphones, sleepless and watching news reports of decimated buildings and bodies laid out on the ground. Still more keep themselves busy organizing relief efforts and maintaining shrines of candles and flowers of both hope and mourning as a steadily rising death toll surpassed 6,000.

"My wife and my relatives are every day crying," said Ram Tamang, who nearly a week after the calamity has yet to hear any word about five family members believed to be trapped under the rubble. "They need to reach them as soon as possible."

Tamang is among an estimated 30,000 Nepalese immigrants in the New York City metropolitan area — including parts of bordering Connecticut and New Jersey — the largest such concentration in the nation. Smaller clusters are in the Washington, D.C., area; Dallas, Houston, Irving, and Forth Worth, Texas; Somerville, Massachusetts; Chicago; and San Francisco.

About 5,000 have settled in New York's Queens borough, where a makeshift candle shrine in the Jackson Heights neighborhood was created in the shape of the letters N-E-P-A-L, under a wall awash in sticky notes in honor of the missing and dead. It has become the main Nepalese gathering spot in New York; hundreds of people form a sea of cross-legged humanity chanting Buddhist prayers on the bare pavement.

For days, Chini Gyalmo Lamini waited for any news about her brother, his wife and two children. Phone connections are difficult or impossible.

"I tried and tried to call," she said.

Several days ago, her phone finally rang. The call delivered bad news.

Her brother is dead, trapped in the family home; her sister-in-law and children are alive.

Lamini buried her face in her hands, weeping quietly. "They cremated him, and everyone else is homeless," said the 48-year-old housekeeper.

She lost a total of 13 relatives and friends, including two children.

Choe Dolma, a 79-year-old woman with a stoic, weathered face, found out a day earlier that she'd lost a friend, but still hadn't heard from others she left two years ago when she came to New York to live near her son.

"I'm praying for peace, for both the living and the dead," she said.

On a Jackson Heights street, a ragtag volunteer army sorted boxes of clothing and other items for the relief effort. Some lively young women gave manicures to raise money.

A more modest effort came from two sisters who left Kathmandu eight months ago.

Salma Maharjan, 23, a social work student, and Sabbu Maharjan, 18, stood in the Jackson Heights subway station at evening rush hour with a cardboard box that read: "Donate for the earthquake victims of NEPAL."

One of their relatives died while trying to rescue someone, another was buried under rubble.

"But we cannot sit here and do nothing," Salma said.

Njima Sherpa, a Nepal-born Manhattan nurse, said what's desperately needed in Nepal is more medical trauma experts — and helicopters to reach remote villages in a landlocked nation topped by the forbidding Himalayas.

Emergency funds from abroad must counter the political instability, poor infrastructure and poverty that make recovery difficult. Hospitals are running out of supplies and beds.

"We can't wait because people aren't being treated, and they're dying," said Sherpa, who comes from a totally wrecked village under Mount Everest.

She lost a cousin. As for others, "I have no idea what's going on."

"Out of frustration," she said, Sherpa plans to fly to Nepal with a medical crew organized by the Nepalese American Nurses Association.

The earthquake has changed relations in the U.S. Nepali community, roughly divided into ethnic Sherpas and Tamangs.

"Before, everybody was on their own, rushing and running," said Indra Tamang. "Now, everybody feels united."