Bev Polzin and Maxine Cooper, Victoria Regional Meeting

We responded to an invitation to participate in AVP workshops in Nepal, issued through Friends Peace Teams Asia-West Pacific Section (FPT-AWP), by John Michaelis (Sydney) and Subhash Kattel (Nepal).

As explained on the FPT website

Friends Peace Teams is a Spirit-led organisation working around the world to develop long-term relationships with communities in conflict to create programs for peacebuilding, healing and reconciliation. FPT’s programs build on extensive Quaker experience combining practical and spiritual aspects of conflict resolution.

The work of Friends Peace Teams is done primarily by volunteers through processes and methods such as Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), trauma healing, community reconciliation, and peace education. The work brings together people or groups-in-conflict from different ethnic, political, gender, religious, and/or other groups in conflict

Maxine conducting a ‘Back to Back Drawing’ activity on the morning of the earthquake.

Maxine conducting a ‘Back to Back Drawing’ activity on the morning of the earthquake.

John Michaelis and Subhash Kattel have worked together in bringing AVP to Nepal since 2008, and have facilitated over 200 AVP workshops there. A number of Australian Friends, and friends of the AVP program in general, have assisted in supporting these workshops over the years.

To have the FPT-AWP section’s continuing support for these experiential AVP programs has been of immense value, and offered credibility to the development of the AVP program in Nepal.

Partnership with Nepal-based organisations, particularly Children-Nepal ( in Pokhara, has offered an additional support. Workshops in Kathmandu have been supported by other agencies, and Subhash, who is based there, has been a key figure in setting up these workshops.

Five people from Australia volunteered to visit with John Michaelis during March-April 2015: Peter Morris from NSW, and Maxine Cooper, Bev Polzin, and Peter and Fiona Morrison, all from Victoria. Most of us were active with AVP programs here in Australia, and were interested to explore AVP in a different cultural context.

It was especially exciting to observe the enthusiasm of the recently trained facilitators in Pokhara, where 22 were trained in one workshop, mostly teachers and social workers. There were two groups – one included only Nepalese speakers and the other group consisted of Children-Nepal staff, and others who spoke some English, including a German social-work student on placement and a Danish volunteer.

A number of these newly trained facilitators joined us in facilitation teams in rural villages out of Pokhara, so had the opportunity to practise what they had recently learnt. Four Basic workshops were held with teachers in village schools. This inclusion of recently trained facilitators will assist AVP Nepal becoming a self-sustaining organisation in the near future.

As usual, with AVP workshops, the learning and wisdom came from the experiences, interaction and insights of the participants, and together with the facilitators they become a community of learners. Many participants spoke of changing their way of working within their schools in disciplining and teaching children. In addition many participants shared how they explored different ways of looking at their own behaviour and life more broadly.

Participating in these AVP programs offered the opportunity to meet and connect, on a meaningful level, with Nepalese, both those who were part of the workshops, and with those who shared their very basic accommodation in these rural villages. Living with families in rural communities, high in the mountains of Nepal was one of the blessings of our time in Nepal.

The other blessing and learning which the AVP programs offered us was to see again the relevance of the program to the participants. It certainly opened up alternative ways of dealing with the challenges faced by teachers in their work. We were asked whether there were many culture-specific differences between the AVP program offered in Australia, and that which was offered in Nepal. We did not notice any differences when the social and cultural situations of the participants were taken into account. The activities are experiential and therefore draw on the social and cultural experiences of the participants’ everyday lives in the school and the community.

One woman teacher at the end of the Training for Facilitators, during what we call the ‘Ungathering’ said “I learnt to listen more; I had previously been a very noisy person, always talking, and now I have learnt how to listen.”

The earthquake

We were each halfway through doing separate workshops in different parts of Kathmandu when the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck. Bev Polzin’s notes from the time give a feeling of the moment of the earthquake:

nepal and after 708

Workshop participants sheltering the field while the aftershocks continued.

For me, in the workshop at a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, there was a feeling of total incredulity that this could be happening, as all of us clung to each other for support in the open air; that the ground could be so unstable and that the brick walls of the fence surrounding the compound could have fallen down so quickly; that the birds in the sky could be so aware and screeching together. One lasting impression was of the comfort being offered by the older inmates in this facility to the very frightened younger people (the youngest in this facility was 14 years old).

Maxine Cooper’s journal entry was:

It was about 11.46, on 25 April, and we were in the middle of a ‘feelings and needs’ activity. We were in a brick building on the fifth floor which was the top of the building. We were seated in a circle. All of a sudden some students started shouting out and then we felt the full force of the quake. Some students ran to the doorway and all the others just dropped onto the floor. It was frightening that you could not stand and because the building was swaying so violently we all became very scared as to what would happen if the building collapsed. 

As soon as the building stopped shaking violently we all raced down the water-slippery stairs and took shelter in the field with other local people. Some were silent, some crying and others were praying. We were all shaken up and worried to think what it would be like in poorer areas of the city where the buildings were not as stable as the one we had just evacuated. We waited there for 2 hours while the after-shocks continued. Our students, mostly welfare workers and some refugees, were sitting on the dirt and trying to phone home to find out how their families had been affected. 

When we felt strong enough to leave the field we were sheltering in, we walked for two hours through the streets to get to where we were staying. We walked a lot in silence. There were a lot of frightened people supporting each other in large groups away from where buildings or electricity wires could fall on them. We walked around and over the electrical wires and stumbled over the bricks and fallen masonry. (Journal notes, Maxine Cooper)

When we got home we saw the building where we were living had some crumbled walls and large cracks in the stairs. Thankfully we met up with the other members of our team and we were all safe and had rice and lentils and water. We were advised to stay there even though the electricity and running water were cut off … We mostly lived outside because the tremors continued. 

nepal and after 722

Fiona Morrison clambering over fallen bricks as we walked home after we thought the earthquake had ceased

We were impressed and touched to observe how ordinary Nepalese people dealt with this catastrophe as they lived in the open together, cooked communally and ate together. They lived under tarpaulins and supported and encouraged each other to be resilient and courageous. There was a sense of acceptance of the situation and a sense of hope and courage. They appeared to wait patiently until those who could either went back to their homes, if they were undamaged, or else caught buses back to their rural villages to see how their families were coping so they could offer assistance in the rural areas which had been badly affected.

By comparison, our own living situation was relatively easy, eating dal baht, drinking filtered water and living outside without electricity or running water for three days.The people in our neighbourhood cared for all in the community who joined them . They shared with each other, and we, as visitors, felt also welcomed.

So, our lasting impression of Nepal is not one of the blooming rhododendrons, the magnificent snow-capped mountains, or the elephants and other wild-life, but one of the courage and resilience of the Nepalese themselves, the extensive mobile phone coverage (everyone seemed to have one) and the ubiquitious greeting of “Nameste” with a smile and with hands brought together that we were greeted with everywhere.

Now we are both back in Australia and one month after the earthquake it is clear that the death toll was over 8,600 people with over 16,800 injured. There were around 1.2 million children not in school prior to the earthquake and now there are 2.2 million children out of school after the earthquake (Alys Francis, The Age Sunday 31 May 2015)

If Friends are interested in finding out more about the work of Friends Peace Teams, or making a donation to their work in Nepal, please see their website. 

For information on the Asia West Pacific Initiative of Friends Peace Teams please see the website. 

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