I met Anu back in late September. I hadn’t been in Kathmandu for long when I received an unexpected message from her one morning via facebook.
We did not know one another. She had found me through a mutual acquaintance online, had taken note of the local work I was doing as a photographer to empower girls and women, and she reached out.
Her message was one of desperation. She told me her family of five had lost their village home which was completely destroyed in April's 7.8 magnitude earthquake. They were currently living together in a single room apartment in Kathmandu, and were on the verge of being evicted onto the street for lack of rent payments. Could I do anything to help?, she pleaded over multiple messages.
I did not respond right away. My head and my heart wavered between a place of trust, of wanting to help, and a place of fear ~ fear that she was feeding me untruths, that I would be taken advantage of, that this could be comparable to the type of scam you receive over anonymous junk mail, along the lines of ‘please send money’, with no further context or proof. Additionally, the staggering statistics of how many people lost their homes and lives in Nepal's earthquake weighed on me. Having worked and photographed within multiple displacement camps throughout the valley, I knew how many people were in similar (and much worse) situations to Anu's.
As it always does in the end, my heart won out and I agreed to meet Anu at a local restaurant, along with a Nepalese friend of mine, Raj, who offered to translate and also come along for additional input and perspective.
And so, Anu and I met in person for the first time.
She was timid and tiny framed. 21 years old. She brought along her 14 year old sister Anita, even smaller, more frail looking. We sat together and talked as both girls picked lightly at the plates in front of them, shifting from one side to the other, stealing glances at each other as I tried to gather more information about their circumstance.
They explained that their mother, Phoolmaya, had injured her leg when a piece of their house came crashing down upon it during the earthquake, leaving her unable to continue on with her job as a laborer, breaking stones for concrete. Their father, whom Anu said had exhausted what little resources their family had on alcohol and other vices, had not been seen since the earthquake.
At this point they did not know whether he was even alive.
They had a 20 year old brother who was making some money through ironwork, and a 5 year old sister, Anjika. Rent for the room they were staying in had not been paid since May, and if they did not come up with the money in the coming week, their landlord would evict them onto the street.
Even through all of Anu and Anita’s words, I had my doubts. While it seemed obvious that both girls were malnourished and underweight, they were dressed somewhat nicely (Later on I would note that they wore the same clothes almost every time we met), and I questioned things like Anu’s consistent use of social media through a cell phone amidst her insisting that their family had no money for food in the house.
As we left the restaurant, we made our way to their home. This, I reasoned, would be the best way to really assess what their level of need was ~ To see with my own eyes the conditions they were living in.
The steps inside of the building were difficult to navigate in the dark, and as I held tight to the railing for guidance, the deafening sound of dogs barking through the iron bars behind an alternate set of steps to another floor echoed and bounced through the sparse concrete stairway.
Anu led us to the doorway of their family’s room, directly across the hall from the dogs behind the iron bars, barking and howling loudly against the steps ~ How does anyone in the family sleep? I wondered.
We entered. My eyes took a few moments to adjust to the thick darkness in the room around me. No electricity.
A small flashlight clicked on, and I raised my hands in a greeting of ‘Namaste’ to the person behind the beam of light. Anu’s mother, Phoolmaya, seated in a corner of the room.
I looked around.
Two single beds facing each other against opposite walls of the room. Two single beds for a family of five.
A wardrobe in one corner. A beat up loveseat. Some shelves. A thin fabric mat covered the concrete floor. In the other corner of the room, the kitchen, consisting of a few barren shelves housing a few empty dishes.
More than what was there, my eyes searched for what wasn’t ~ what was missing. A bathroom. A fridge. A sink. Food.
Another silhouette from one of the beds came to life as 5 year old Anjika shuffled onto the floor by her mother’s feet, smiling and eyes brightening for visitors.
Responding to the lack of food in the room, Raj asked Anu’s mother Phoolmaya what they had been eating recently, to which she responded that their diets for the past few days had consisted mostly of dry noodles.
I took a slow breath, processing, and my eyes moved from the barren kitchen shelves to Anjika’s bright eyes as Raj offered Phoolmaya 1,000 Nepalese rupees ($14 Canadian) to purchase some immediate grocery items.
I returned to the house I was currently staying in, opened my laptop in the moonlight streaming through the window. Without a second thought, my fingers moved feverishly, my feelings spilled forth and a message on the keypad to a small number of my closest friends and family members took shape.
My intention was to gather $300 CDN, enough to pay the rent that was owed to Anu’s landlord to keep them from being evicted that week, with enough left over to buy a month’s worth of groceries for the family. In this time, I reasoned to myself, Raj and myself could attempt to assist Anu in finding a job to garner stability and support for her family going forward.
The chain of events to unfold next and throughout the following months would not only be unexpected, but an example of the power we all possess to impact one another’s lives.
To be catalysts for change and ambassadors of love.
I hit the ‘send’ button.