As news broke that the aftershocks from the devastating earthquake that ravaged Nepal had sent the death toll surging past 2,000, Poonam Ghising did the only thing she felt she could: she joined several hundred others for a vigil in Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights on Saturday and lit a candle.
Separated from her Nepalese family by half the globe and thousands of miles of ocean, the 29-year-old babysitter put a crumpled $50 note into a cardboard collection box of a hastily arranged relief effort. She squeezed the hand of her friend, Ravina. And she prayed.
“There’s nothing I can do physically,” said Ghising. “I feel helpless.”
Having weathered the initial impact of the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake, that has so far claimed 3,726 lives, Ghising says her mother, two brothers and sister back home were doubling down Sunday evening for their second night exposed to the elements, save for a tarpaulin sheet. In a field three miles from Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, they were unable to return home and faced a scarcity of food and water, she said.
Ghising says the last time she spoke to her mother she said, “Oh shit, I have to go” and the line went dead. “It’s scary,” Ghising said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Amid the chaos and confusion in the immediate aftermath of the tremors, more details revealing the scale of the devastation continued to emerge from Nepal as authorities began a coordinated rescue effort.
“We expect it to be much worse as we get more information,” said Luna Ranjit, executive director of Adhikaar, a non-profit that works with New York’s Nepali communities, which arranged the candlelit vigil and donation drive.
Beneath multi-colored bunting stretching between a stop sign and a lamp post on 37th Road and 74th Street, Ranjit implored the crowd of several hundred. “Now really is the time to open our hearts and wallets,” he said.
Ranjit said that the U.S government’s pledge of one million dollars was simply not enough given the scale of what was fast becoming a widespread humanitarian crisis. As night closed in on the plaza and tea-light candles spelling out “Pray for Nepal” glowed in the fading light, Ranjit estimated that donations from various youth groups and community organizations had totaled as much as $100,000 for food and tents.
“We expected a large turnout, but this exceeded all of our expectations,” said Ranjit, in an interview later in the evening. “People just needed to be with other Nepalis who understand what they’re going through. “It’s been a very rough couple of days,” said Ranjit, whose entire family except for her mother lives just outside of Kathmandu.
With electricity in the affected region down, uncertainty owing to patchy communications has been excruciating for many with relatives in the affected areas. For some, the wait to reach loved ones, to know whether they are alive or dead, is agonizing.
“We are speechless. We don’t have the words to express ourselves,” said Prema Shah, a 63-year-old Nepali writer who has so far been unable to contact her three brothers in Nepal. “I feel as if I’m dying here.”
Karma Sheria says he was able to reach his family in Nepal using the free messaging mobile app Viber. Unable to recharge their phones once their batteries ran out, Sheria has since lost contact, he said. The treasurer for the New York Nepal Football Club had been in Diversity Plaza since noon. Within eight hours, Sheria estimated they had raised as much as $18,000 and filled three cars’ worth of donated clothes. Indeed, the team’s stall bin bags brimmed with checkered shorts, white children’s’ shirts and a lilac blouse, among other garments.
Elsewhere in the square, well-wishers taped fluorescent post-it notes bearing messages of hope to a #prayfornepal wall. “Nepal is my mother,” one read, “God save her”; “Every grain counts, so please pay your support,” read another, and another, “Nepal is in my heart.”