Minnesota Nepalis gather to mourn earthquake victims

Overcome with grief
Pallavi Gurung was overcome with grief during a vigil for Nepal earthquake victims Wednesday, April 29 at the State Capitol in St. Paul. She has family in Kathmandu who survived the earthquake, but who are all very frightened and traumatized, she said.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Five days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, some Nepalis living in Minnesota say they still can't reach loved ones.

Others who were able to connect with relatives say they still can't quite believe that parents, siblings and cousins are gone.

About 500 people gathered in a candlelight vigil at the State Capitol mall Wednesday night to support the small Himalayan country hit by the strongest earthquake there in nearly a century. The death toll has risen to more than 5,500. The UN says more than eight million people have been affected by the quake.

Deepak Chaulagai, who came to the United States in 1998, was relieved to hear his immediate family was OK.

But his wife, Rashika, lost her aunt, three cousins and a brother-in-law. Chaulagai said the aunt "was running after the first shock and the neighbor's wall fell and hit her. The others were in the same house. The house collapsed and they died."

Chaulagai's voice broke and tears ran down his face as he shared his story with the gathered mourners, many in traditional Nepalese dress.

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The U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 numbers say about 1,500 Nepalese live in Minnesota. But the president of the Association of Nepalis in Minnesota, Apeckchya Karki, estimates the number could be double that.

"It's very heartbreaking and especially being here you feel very helpless because you just want to help so many people," Karki, organizer of the vigil, said of the earthquake. "When you hear all these families and community stories your heart is so heavy."

Karki moved to Minnesota as a graduate student about 10 years ago. Her parents are still in Nepal, but were far from the quake's epicenter.

In the Kathmandu Valley, survivors need food and water, and many are trying to leave the stricken area.

"The damage is so massive," Karki said, adding that the organization raised more than $50,000 so far to help with relief efforts. "That's why we have to raise more."

Some at the vigil wore t-shirts with a large 7.8 number written on the front. Others held signs that said "I love Nepal." Posters displayed photos of the aftermath with #NepalNeedsYou and #Contribute to encourage social media support. Organizers set up tea light candles on the ground in the shape of the country.

The American Red Cross said Wednesday it is "committing an initial $1 million" toward relief efforts in Nepal.

In Kathmandu, where most buildings were spared complete collapse, many residents — fearing aftershocks — continued to camp in parks and other open spaces.

"It's fear of not being able to trust your own house," said Sagar Uprety, whose siblings have young families in Nepal. "My heart aches thinking about the people who lost everything, the people who didn't make it, the people that are buried alive."