Lauti Tharu, a gaunt woman with dark hair, was with her grandson when flood water swept into her home in the village of Godiyana in the Bardiya district of Nepal this past August. The 72-year-old widow was trapped until her son-in-law came and rescued her and her grandson. When she returned several days later, she found her house was damaged and all her food and possessions inside were wet and ruined.
More than 41 million people like Tharu in Bangladesh, India and Nepal were affected by flooding and landslides from unusually heavy monsoon rains that caused the severest flooding in years. At least 1,200 people in South Asia died in the inundations.
In Nepal, where Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler has served for more than 40 years, an estimated 1.7 million people were affected, with 461,000 displaced from their homes and 160 killed, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. It was time once again for the 68-year-old missioner from Covington, Ky., to provide aid and comfort to the poorest of this Himalayan country, many of whom are still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake in 2015 that killed more than 9,000 people.
“This is my work, what God is calling me to do and make a difference in people’s lives,” Father Thaler says, adding that the flooding hit some of the poorest parts of the country, including Saptari and Bardiya districts, where Maryknoll began helping. In Bardiya, in Nepal’s midwestern region, the flood covered crops, damaged schools and washed away houses, food, clothes and livestock.
“Most people living in this area are rice farmers and a lot of them had grains like rice and lentils stored in sacks in the corner of their houses, but when the rain came, it all got wet and destroyed,” says Father Thaler. “People in the small villages don’t have refrigerators, and they rely on what they plant and harvest.”
For many people, the October harvest season came with nothing in their fields to reap. “The whole planting season is gone and to try to get food to people is going to be a major challenge,” the missioner says. People faced severe food shortages and even starvation in several districts. At the same time, so many houses collapsed or were unsafe due to damage that people were forced to live under the open sky and take shelter along roadsides. The schools were closed due to flood damage, and already poor schools lost all their books and educational materials.
For Father Thaler providing food is the top priority, followed by shelter, bedding and educational materials. The missioner—in collaboration with Care Development Organization (CDO-Nepal), a non-profit he helped to start in 2005 to assist Nepali brick factory workers, and the Dalit Welfare Association, another non-governmental organization—distributed rice, tent canvases and bed sheets to 341 households in multiple villages. But Father Thaler also brings something else, the intangible gift of his presence and the time he gives to listen to the stories of loss and tragedy of those he helps, like the widow Tharu and others.
In the village of Rampur, the missioner listened to 13-year-old Binita Budha, whose parents live in India and send back money to support her and her brothers and sisters. She says her mother arrived home one day before the flooding and moved the children to safety. When they returned home, everything inside their home was damaged. “When it was safe for us to stay at home, my mother went back to India,” she adds. “Now my older sister, 17, takes care of us.”
Despite their losses, many people set about immediately to rebuild. “The houses are very simple, made of bamboo and mud and are not expensive to rebuild,” the missioner says.
In addition to providing food and shelter, Father Thaler feels it is essential to help students return to school without any delay. In the Gola municipality in Bardiya, the Maryknoller helped provide textbooks, Nepali and English dictionaries, grammar primers, storybooks and a computer.
“We wanted to express our gratitude to the missioner and Maryknoll and friends for the great help; offering scholarships to the students of grades 11 and 12 and the library,” said one of the recipients of a scholarship.
In Saptari district, Father Thaler teamed up with CDO-Nepal and other local non-profits to distribute clothes, food and educational supplies, such as pens, pencils, textbooks and notebooks to 624 students in the village of Banarjhula and to 478 students in the village of Kalyanpur.
“I don’t do this alone; it is about working together with the local community and helping each other to rebuild this nation,” Father Thaler says. “My ministry is not only to feed, clothe and provide shelter, but also to empower people, bring a more positive attitude and make people feel more compassionate, loving and caring for one another.”
Featured Image: Children from Saptari district in Nepal hold up school supplies provided by Maryknoll Father Joseph Thaler. (CDO-Nepal)