Saturday 22 October 2016

The Goal volunteer: 'My family were very, very nervous but supportive when I told them I was coming'

Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30

Stephen Jenkinson from Terenure Dublin who is working with Goal in Kathmundu, Nepal.
Pic:Mark Condren
Stephen Jenkinson from Terenure Dublin who is working with Goal in Kathmundu, Nepal. Pic:Mark Condren 30.4.2015

Airports - whether they are open or not - are generally very busy areas in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster in poorer nations. Many of those who can afford it or who may be internally displaced want to get out of the country as soon as possible, at least until things return to some sort of normality.

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Aid workers, military, rescue teams and journalists - all of whom will have plenty of luggage - want to get in as soon as possible to do their work which, of course, they are paid for.

But you don't hear of many volunteers struggling to catch a flight into a natural disaster area.

"No, I suppose not," Stephen Jenkinson says with a grin. "But that was me at the weekend."

The 31-year-old from Terenure in Dublin insists he is no adrenaline junkie or disaster tourist - and his story checks out.

"An earthquake hitting Kathmandu is something I've been expecting and dreading for a very long time," he says.

"When I started getting messages at 9.30 on Saturday morning, I knew Goal would be amongst the first to respond and I wanted to be with them.

"I'm not a humanitarian worker yet - I hope to get there - but I knew Goal have a presence here, and thought that my local knowledge might help. And thankfully it worked out."

In the vital first few days following a disaster, local knowledge is a valuable commodity for the various groups coming in, and especially for NGOs. Stephen's was gleaned from years of working as a country director for the Umbrella Foundation, a non-profit NGO set up in Nepal a decade ago by a group of Irish people.

The foundation describes itself as "a safe place for children who were victims of trafficking and neglect".

"We have rescued about 380 vulnerable children from danger and I think I would know all of their names and their families," he says.

"It probably sounds cheesy or idealistic or whatever, but they are like little brothers and sisters - so me coming out here is primarily to see what I can do for them.

"My family was nervous but supportive when I told them I was coming," he adds. "I'm not a seasoned humanitarian, but I don't think it was totally unexpected for them given the amount of time I've spent here and the relationships I've built up."

There must be something in the water at the foundation's headquarters because another Dubliner, Macartan Gaughan (29), from Raheny, also arrives in, having taken a fortnight's holiday from his accountancy job in Melbourne as quickly as he could.

He also had difficulties with airports.

"I have about 40kg of gear, including medicines, but it was held en route in Bangladesh, and I'm trying to get it through," he says. "I'm here to borrow socks and jocks off Stephen."

While the pair bounce off each other, they are serious when it comes to the work they are doing in a potentially volatile environment.

"There are about 60 of us - kids, staff and volunteers - still sleeping outside because of the dangers of aftershocks," 'Mac' says.

"We have set up security shifts because there's been a rise in burglaries in the camp, and we're doing the best we can."

Fears that a 17-year-old girl called Jalmiah may have come to harm were finally allayed on Thursday when she turned up at the foundation's headquarters, having successfully found her brother.

"We think everyone is okay, but we still have to make contact with some who were previously re-integrated with their families in more rural areas," he adds.

At one point early last week, the Red Cross said there were concerns for more than a dozen Irish people in Nepal who had not contacted their families.

But thankfully, the worst fears never came to pass with the last of these 'missing' Irish - Thomas Drumm (55) from Co Monaghan - contacting his family by email on Wednesday to say things "were crazy" but "people are getting on with life".

Undoubtedly, the luckiest Irishman in Nepal last Saturday when the earthquake struck was Paul Greenan (38).

Review tracked down the Dubliner to hospital in Kathmandu after he needed three helicopter rides and a plane ride to get off Everest because an avalanche in the aftermath of the quake swept through base camp, killing at least 18, including one member of his team.

"Large rocks were thrown at us like missiles," he said. "My elbow was dislocated and replaced three times, my hand is broken, six broken ribs, my pelvis is shattered..."

He has since been medically evacuated.

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