Rebuilding homes, cementing friendships

The damaged houses in Bhakunde Besi. The April 25 earthquake in Nepal left about 9,000 people dead and destroyed 598,000 homes.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

A year-end trip to Hokkaido during the school holidays had been on the cards for Ms Sharon Soh and her family. That was until she saw the devastation caused by the earthquake in Nepal on April 25.

The product marketing manager then decided it would be more meaningful for the family to spend their vacation volunteering in Nepal rather than relaxing in Japan.

The earthquake left about 9,000 people dead and destroyed 598,000 homes. With the biting Nepalese winter arriving now, many whose homes were left unsafe by the earthquake need emergency shelters.

"I felt for Nepal as I was just there on holiday last year," said Ms Soh, 44. "The people really touched us, so I decided to help."

It was also a chance for her and her only son, 13-year-old Gerald Tan, to bond. Her husband did not join them as he had to go on an overseas work trip.

She forked out about $3,200 - including air tickets - for the trip.

They travelled with 17 other volunteers in October, under the YMCA of Singapore's Rebuilding Communities Programme. The programme, supported by the National Youth Council's Youth Expedition Project, encourages young people to volunteer.

The team spent a week in the town of Bhakunde Besi - a two- hour drive from Nepal's capital Kathmandu.

Their job was to build 30 shelters together with local volunteers, and to distribute household items and food to needy families.

Bhakunde Besi was chosen because it had been ignored by the main relief and rebuilding efforts, according to Mr Wilson Shrestha, 31, director of Living Hope Nepal, a Christian non-governmental organisation which partnered YMCA of Singapore in the project.

"People were more concerned about places closer to the earthquake's epicentre, where houses were totally destroyed," he said.

"(Houses in Bhakunde Besi) might look OK on the outside, but they are not safe to live in at all as there are cracks," he added.

YMCA of Singapore linked up with Living Hope Nepal through a Singapore connection - Ms Caroline Wong.

The 36-year-old is married to Mr Shrestha. She works as a teacher in Nepal, but also helps her husband at Living Hope Nepal, which was founded by his father .

The shelters which the volunteer groups put up can last up to three years. They are made up of steel bars and zinc sheets. Each set costs US$200 (S$280) and takes about 30 minutes to build. With an area of 12 sq m, each can comfortably fit in at least 10 people.

One volunteer, 32-year-old safety manager Xavier Wong, said the biggest challenge was working with metal as there were sharp edges and the volunteers had a limited number of tools. "But once you have mastered the technique, it's quite easy," he said.

Nepalese student Bikash Khatrichhetri, 18, was among the eight local volunteers. "When I was 12, I was sent to an orphanage here because my mother could not afford to support my sister and me. My father left us," he said.

"The orphanage put me through school. I was helped, so now I want to help people in the village too."

It is the first time the YMCA of Singapore has sent a team to Nepal but there are already plans to return - and soon. Its assistant general manager for programmes, Mr Andrew Leo, 45, said: "We're already talking about rebuilding schools in the village."

Currently, students from Uni-Y at National University of Singapore - YMCA of Singapore's service club at the school - are volunteering in Bhakunde Besi. They will be there for about two weeks.

As for Ms Soh and her family, their next holiday will be to Bandung, Indonesia, this month in place of Hokkaido. Not that Gerald, a student at Pei Hwa Secondary School, minded. "After seeing pictures of how bad it is in Nepal after the earthquake, I wanted to help," he said. "We can always go to Hokkaido another time."

This article was first published on December 7, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.