Exactly one year ago today, I had one of the worst experiences of my life. On April 25, 2015, at 11:56, a 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal, and me and my 5-year-old daughter were trapped in the middle of it. After the quake ended, for about 20 minutes, I didn’t know whether my daughter was alive, harmed, or buried under the wreckage. There was no way of knowing what happened to her — the moment the earthquake hit, my daughter was halfway across down at her ballet class. Though everybody around me went crazy, the only feeling I can remember is the overwhelming panic and fear that something might have happened to her and that I had no way of protecting her. Only when I saw my partner pull into the parking lot after what felt like an eternity was I finally able to take my daughter into my arms and hug and kiss her. She was safe. So were we.
At the time of the earthquake, we’d already been living in Nepal for three years. We’d moved there in the first place because I was doing field research for my PhD thesis, but we quickly fell in love with the country and decided to stay longer. We were living in a small village one hour outside of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and my daughter had just started going to school there.
What followed in the weeks after earthquake were sheer pandemonium. I immediately began working with first-relief efforts, getting shelter and food out to our village after a first assessment had been conducted. Then, slowly, the facts came rolling in. In our village, not one house was inhabitable anymore. We had lost everything: our office, our house, our restaurant, and our possessions, but luckily, our friends and family were alive and well. The dominant feeling of the first weeks was just relief, as so many others had lost their loved ones. At least we still had each other.
Though she was only 5 at the time, my daughter processed everything surprisingly well. I think it helped a lot that everybody was in the same situation, so we were all sitting in the same boat. She was craving information in an effort to understand why this happened to us. I tried to explain tectonics to her as accurately as possible, and for a couple of weeks she repeated this to everyone she met, acting out the collision of tectonic plates with her small hands, but you could tell that she was just repeating what I’d told her. How do you explain to a child that you can’t control the earth? That you can’t keep her, or friends, or even yourself, safe? She was very sad that our house, which had been her home for three years, was destroyed, but relieved to see that all her friends were fine.
Every time I came home, my daughter was waiting for me and was my biggest source of strength. She helped me to pack tents and packages of food and accompanied me on my shopping tours, when we tried, usually unsuccessfully, to get more relief materials. She was always positive and cheered me up, even when my days were hard, unrelenting, and long. On days when I gave everything to everyone around me, I came home and my daughter gave me the very thing I needed: her love.
When I look back now one year later, I have to say those weeks were probably the hardest I’ve ever lived through. I worked non-stop and have never been so exhausted. I have seen so much tragedy and hardship, that sometimes it was hard to find energy to get up everyday and press forward. Because I never gave myself enough time to process what had happened to us and to our family before switching to work mode, I often almost forgot that this tragedy was something I also lived through and that I had my own trauma to deal with. But for as bad as these weeks were, they also made me see a completely different side of my daughter, and it’s changed our relationship forever.
Small things make her very happy now, things like a good meal, having a roof over our heads, and meeting up with friends. She has become much less materialistic and more mature.
In the year since the earthquake, I’ve thought about the way she coped and got through those terrifying days and weeks. I realized how strong she is. Even at just 5 years old, she never complained and completely understood that I had to support other people in addition to her and my partner. I spent many days in the village in very difficult situations. Quickly tents and plastic tarps sold out in Kathmandu and people got desperate. I’ve seen more than one physical fight over a piece of tarp or some food, and as we worked with people in the village to bring in supplies, making sure there was enough was increasingly difficult. But every time I came home, my daughter was waiting for me and was my biggest source of strength. She helped me to pack tents and packages of food and accompanied me on my shopping tours, when we tried, usually unsuccessfully, to get more relief materials. She was always positive and cheered me up, even when my days were hard, unrelenting, and long. On days when I gave everything to everyone around me, I came home and my daughter gave me the very thing I needed: her love. At just 5, she supported me in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
I also learned that my daughter is incredibly generous and a true humanitarian at heart. Without a second thought, she donated most of her clothes and toys to children from the village immediately after the earthquake. Even now, when we go to the village and visit some of the farmers who lost everything in the earthquake, she always says that she wants to support every single one of them “to build a new and beautiful house.” She even donated the little money she got as a present from her great aunt to help the survivors. Even at her young age, she understood how privileged we were, because even though we’d lost so much of our property and assets, we were still able to pull ourselves out from under the rubble — literally and figuratively — and she wanted to give everything she had to everyone else.
We’ve also become partners. I care for her, but she also cares for me. She brings me water when I’m sick, does laundry with me, and does the shopping for dinner at the shop around the corner without complaining. Since we have been through such a terrifying experience together, she feels valued and as a result, wants to serve as a more responsible part in our household.
Our relationship has changed a lot during the past months following the earthquake. We appreciate each other much more. Of course, I’ve always loved my daughter more than anything, but before the earthquake, many times, I took her for granted. I was never really aware that she could be taken from me in the blink of an eye, and that our life together is a gift and not right of passage. Now we both know how lucky we are that we’ve survived without a scratch and have each other, and we are closer than ever. She’s grown up a lot throughout this process and really learned to appreciate what we have. Small things make her very happy now, things like a good meal, having a roof over our heads, and meeting up with friends. She has become much less materialistic and more mature. Of course we still fight sometimes and, but the connection between us has grown, and we lean on each other much more.
We’ve also become partners. I care for her, but she also cares for me. She brings me water when I’m sick, does laundry with me, and does the shopping for dinner at the shop around the corner without complaining. Since we have been through such a terrifying experience together, she feels valued and as a result, wants to serve as a more responsible part in our household. Of course she also has a lot of playtime and I don’t give her responsibilities she can’t handle, but she feels empowered and acts that way.
And we both have seen how strong we are together. We supported each other through this catastrophe, and this gives us the confidence that we can make it through anything. Even though the period of my life that began exactly one year ago today was one of the worst I can remember, I am proud of how we handled it together, and I am particularly proud of my wonderful, strong, and generous daughter.