The children at this orphanage were dalit [untouchables], facing discrimination within Nepalese society. But here, they were loved and felt safe. With Mother Rajam, the caretaker of the orphanage, away overnight, Ishwor felt a wave of responsibility towards the other children, who like him, had no family.
Now too old to live in the orphanage, Ishwor worked there part-time as a carer and mentor on the weekends. It remained his true home. It was where he’d spent 13 years of his life, where he’d been lovingly raised since being abandoned at the age of four. When he turned 17, Ishwor became the oldest boy in the home, someone the children looked up to. After spending the 2014 school year studying in Australia at Adelaide’s Pulteney Grammar School, he was back in Kathmandu completing the last few months of high school.
As Ishwor enjoyed a playful wrestle with one of the older boys that afternoon, the floor suddenly began to shake. What started as a silent tremble quickly grew to a chorus of violent jolts as the ground moved back and forth. Ishwor heard a loud crash as the new two-storey brick building started to sway. The children began screaming, terrified as the worst earthquake to hit Nepal in 80 years – magnitude 7.8 – took hold, tearing apart Kathmandu and its surrounding valleys.
I have to get them out of here before the building collapses, Ishwor thought, shouting to everyone to flee. “Run to the vegetable patch!” He knew the newly cleared field adjacent to the orphanage was their closest option. All of the kids were panicking, some cried out, others screamed. It was chaos.
The orphanage relied heavily on financial support from the Australian Rotary Clubs of Brownhill Creek and Blackwood as well as Pulteney Grammar School, all in Adelaide. The late David Rusk, a South Australian Rotarian, had regularly visited the orphanage since 2006. In early 2013, he formed the Friends of Nepal to raise money for a school on the orphanage grounds. It opened in February 2015. During one of Rusk’s visits he asked Ishwor what he wanted to do with his life. The teen told him of his hopes to study business and to help others. David hatched a plan with Mark Bourchier, director of The Pulteney Foundation, the school’s philanthropic arm, and they offered him a scholarship to study in Adelaide for a year.
Ishwor was hosted by four families, including Mark and Jo Bourchier. Throughout 2013, they and the school community made him feel at home and helped shape him into a confident young adult.
Fearing the building would collapse, Ishwor grabbed three little four year olds and guided the other children and staff to the vegetable patch where they’d be safe from falling debris. Yet even out in the open, the violent sounds of buildings collapsing across the valley was terrifying. Ishwor did his best to calm the youngsters before running back to rescue more children.
Once all 55 orphans had been accounted for, Ishwor took in the devastation around him. What had once been walls of homes and temples were now precarious piles of bricks. People wandered about in shock, some were injured. Cries rang out across the valley. The earthquake claimed the lives of more than 8000 people across Nepal and left 18,000 injured.
The orphanage and school – like the majority of buildings in the area – had suffered severe damage. The foundations had been torn apart, and now large cracks ran up the walls.
That night the children and staff slept outside. Mother Rajan made the perilous journey back to the orphanage, relieved to find Ishwor, the carers and children sheltering under blankets. The frightened and cold children were wide-awake – the regular aftershocks a constant reminder of their terrifying ordeal.
As the next morning dawned, Ishwor and the other carers worked quickly to build makeshift tents using plastic sheeting hung over wooden poles to protect the children from the elements. Finding fresh water, food and medical supplies was difficult. One boy fell ill with a cold and fever, while another, knocked unconscious during the quake, needing close attention. With the monsoon season only weeks away, they next turned their attention to building a bamboo and mud-rendered cottage.
Meanwhile Ishwor’s Adelaide host families desperately tried to make contact, needing to know he was safe. Eventually Jo Bourchier reached Ishwor, and once the Friends of Pulteney school foundation knew just how precarious the orphans’ situation was, they swung into action. Jo and Lynne Rawson, another host mother, decided to travel to Nepal to help, arriving on May 6 with 200kg of tents, water purifiers, solar lighting, cooking utensils, medicine and toiletries.
During their two weeks in Kathmandu, Jo and Lynne helped get the power reconnected to the orphanage and build a water pump. They comforted the children and stocked the mud cottage full of food.
Back in Australia, the Friends of Pulteney began fundraising for the building repairs. The children slowly got used to sleeping in the tents brought from Adelaide, and using portable toilets donated by the Taiwanese Red Cross. They weren’t alone – makeshift tent cities dotted the Nepal hills, housing half a million homeless.
But, on May 12, less than three weeks after the earthquake, the unthinkable happened – a second earthquake with a 7.3 magnitude hit Kathmandu. While most of the children were outside, during the minute-long episode, both the school and the orphanage sustained further damage.
As the children and adults settled in to life in the temporary cottage, on the other side of the world, the Pulteney community was raising funds to help rebuild the orphanage – and creating a ripple effect of good.
As word of the orphan’s predicament spread, cake stalls, black tie dinners and sausage sizzles were held. In the six months following the first earthquake, Rotary and the Friends of Pulteney raised almost $200,000 for Mother Rajan to start repairs and by October, the children moved back into the orphanage building. Repairing the cracks that run up the side of the orphanage building – and cause water to seep inside the walls – will continue for some time.
Life for Ishwor now centres on his studies, finding a university place and helping his extended family of little brothers and sisters.
“After the earthquake, the orphanage struggled to maintain a normal life for the children,” he says. “We all faced huge changes and have only been able to complete half the repairs, but fortunately the worst-damaged foundation is now strong enough to withstand the regular aftershocks. But everyone at the orphanage is now doing great and I’m still mentoring the children.
“I haven’t given up on my dream to study in Australia again, but for now, it will have to wait.”