As my wife talked on the phone Wednesday with her brother in Nepal, I turned on the television to see the news dominated by the situation in Baltimore. Only a few days had passed since Nepal’s earthquake, but already I could see its plight slipping from the headlines.
My wife, whom I met in Nepal while serving in the Peace Corps years ago, was listening to her brother describe how his family needed to move into a sturdier house next door. We also spoke with our nephew, a human rights attorney who recently visited us in Durham after completing a fellowship at Columbia Law School. Days after he and his family reunited in Kathmandu, they were sleeping in a field.
My wife’s sister, who lives in a remote Nepalese village near the Indian border, recently started building a house. She was lucky: Construction hadn’t begun, so there was nothing there to collapse.
Indeed, our family in Nepal is alive, without serious injuries, unlike some of their neighbors. Elsewhere, closer to the epicenter, the situation is far worse.
As someone who works with the news media, I understand why attention has turned so quickly to same-sex marriage, Bruce Jenner and other stories closer to home. The Baltimore protests, especially, highlight emotional issues that affect Americans more directly. Networks can cover them easily.
I also get why so much coverage of Nepal has focused on the tragedy on Mount Everest instead of on average Nepalis, whose numbers are so much larger. Americans can identify with climbers trapped on a mountain or racing to escape an avalanche crashing into the base camp, near where I’ve hiked myself. The video is dramatic, and the suffering of Western climbers is palpable. Most of the villages near the earthquake’s epicenter, on the other hand, have yet to receive assistance, much less reporters, although a few outlets have provided excellent coverage.
Caring about Nepal as I do, this bothers me, as it does many other Americans who have spent time there and been enthralled by the country’s beauty and people. I keep reminding myself that my own concern about the earthquakes in Haiti and China or the tsunamis in Indonesia and Sri Lanka faded within a few days. I donated money in response to several of these tragedies, but, to be honest, I moved on, as other Americans are doing now. If I expect them to remain focused on Nepal – well, how much are we discussing Ebola lately?
The problem with our short attention span and domestic focus is that my brother-in-law still has a damaged house and my nephew still needs safe shelter for his wife and two children. My wife’s cousin has left the country, at least for a while. Many Nepalis have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods. Bodies remain buried under rubble. Schools have collapsed. Much of the country’s cultural heritage, like the magnificent temples I’ve visited dozens of times, is lost. Imagine waking up here and the Statue of Liberty and other icons were gone.
Even as I feel anguish, I’ve been surprised to discover how many people have turned to me to learn about a remote country in the news. Even before I woke up the morning of the earthquake, my iPhone was filling up with messages from friends asking about our family. My wife is the only Nepali person many of them have ever met, so they immediately thought of us. Our phone rings constantly. Our Facebook page has become a destination for friends looking for a human connection to what they’ve seen on television.
Likewise for Duke’s four undergraduates from Nepal. They started an earthquake relief fund to which 500 people donated. The Nepal Center of North Carolina and other local groups are also raising funds. Across the country, Nepalis living in the United States and Americans like myself who worked or traveled in Nepal have found themselves thrust into a role they never expected but now embrace.
So, yes, the next time my brother-in-law calls, the television is more likely to be reporting the NBA playoffs than Nepal. I’ve come to accept that. I also know that those of us who love this magical country now have a special responsibility to keep explaining to our friends in the Triangle and beyond, again and again, that its challenge is only beginning.
David Jarmul, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the late 1970s, heads the news and communications office at Duke University.