Former Tao Group in-house promotion manager Levon Budding was about to embark on a new job and life in Los Angeles on April 25 when a 7.8-magnitude quake, the first of two devastating temblors, struck Nepal. A humanitarian with experience in Nepal through JRM Foundation for Humanity, Budding dropped everything and spent nearly two weeks delivering aid to the country’s most affected rural communities. Although the L.A. job fell through, Budding has found a new function as the spokesman for the JRM Foundation and will return to Nepal in July to keep the mission alive.
Where were you when the first quake struck, and how did that lead you back to Nepal?
I was in Las Vegas that Saturday morning. I got an email about the earthquake from friends at the Little Sisters Fund in Kathmandu. I was horrified. As the day went on, I felt strongly compelled to go. My friend Dr. Fahim Rahim was scheduled to go to the Everest region as part of the Himalayan Stove Project, but instead he said he would be going to set up medical relief camps and outreach missions to the rural areas. Since I had been on a trip with him just six months before doing the same things, I told him I was coming along. I bought my plane ticket, rendezvoused with him in Dubai and [traveled] on to Kathmandu with the rest of our medical team.
Who was on the team with you?
In Dubai, Dr. Rahim and I met with surgeons, Drs. Khalid Nawaz and Kurt Howard in Dubai, along with three EMTs, Lance Tayson and his two sons Jesse and Ely. When we arrived in Kathmandu, we had coordinated to meet at the Hotel Tibet with trauma surgeon Dr. Ehsun Mirza. We had also arranged to meet an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Matthew Lin, who is highly experienced with disaster response. We already had several hundred Nepalese volunteers coordinating with us through Facebook Messenger, and three or four dozen of those volunteers met with us at Hotel Tibet. By Friday, May 1, we were ready to move out to the Dhulikhel hospital outside of Kathmandu. Dhulikhel is the main hospital between Kathmandu and the rural areas of the Kavre and Sindupalchowk districts, which are some of the hardest hit areas in Nepal. The people of Sindhupalchowk suffered the highest death toll from the earthquake, with more than 1,100 people reported killed. That number continues to rise as reports continue to come in from the more remote parts of the district.
What did you and the team do once you arrived in Nepal?
We knew we had to get out to the rural areas as soon as we could, so we went to Dhulikhel hospital the next day. We put our trauma surgeons, Drs. Kurt Howard and Matthew Lin, to work in the operating rooms. Drs. Rahim and Mirza are both kidney specialists. Many of the victims end up dying of kidney failure as their internal organs are damaged in the collapsing buildings. We spent five nights camped in the courtyard at Dhulikhel and then four nights sleeping at an elementary school in Lalitpur. Each day we did outreach in the rural areas, dropping food, medicine and shelters to those in need. And on May 7, we set up a medical clinic at the school in Lalitpur, serving more than 450 patients in a single day with medicine, food, and counseling for sanitation and PTSD.
Who was in charge of this rescue mission?
Dr. Rahim is the man who helped pull this whole mission together. He is a true hero, transcending cultures with his positive attitude and magnetic personality. He understands the geo-political as well as the cultural situation in the region. He has the insight, the drive and the charisma to get things done on short notice. Governmental organizations and large nongovernmental organizations, such as the Red Cross, are almost completely paralyzed. There is red tape everywhere, and only the smallest of private organizations like Dr. Rahim’s JRM Foundation are able to really make an impact.
And what exactly is the political situation there?
The biggest hindrance to the humanitarian mission is the [conflict] between India and China, with Nepal caught in the middle. The Himalayan mountains are a strategic water source between India and China, with Tibet on the north face and Nepal along the south face. Both India and China have been jockeying for control of the area for decades. Their leaders have promised the Nepalese prime minister a blank check to deal with the earthquake disaster under the condition that he not accept aid from the other side. This has created a political gridlock, halting all but smaller private humanitarian missions from getting anything done. This is how our team, a group of friends who convened from all over the world, was able to have the biggest effect in disaster relief.
The state of affairs is bad, and getting worse for the people of Nepal as the monsoon season begins. This is especially true for those in the rural areas of northern Sindhupalchowk and Langtang. The Chinese government has banned all foreign aircraft from flying within 25 kilometers of their border, making it next to impossible for any governmental organization or major nongovernmental organization to reach the people most affected by the earthquake. Only the most determined locals and smaller privately funded humanitarian groups will be able to reach those people in time to assist or evacuate them before an even larger humanitarian crisis begins.
Luckily, the people of Nepal are incredibly resilient. They are among the friendliest, open and compassionate human beings in the world. Even in the face of ruin, they still had warm smiles on their faces, inviting us into what was left of their home for tea. They are what we at the JRM Foundation call the Faces of Hope.
We begin to raise the alarm to the world of the deadly situation that the political gridlock between India and China is creating for the innocent people of Nepal. They cannot be forgotten after surviving such a terrible earthquake disaster, only to be washed away in the rain and mudslides.
What can people in Las Vegas do to help?
It will help very little to make donations to larger nongovernmental organizations with high levels of overhead. Smaller, privately funded nonprofit groups such as Childreach, the Little Sisters Fund, JRM Foundation and the Orphan Project have been most effective so far.
Describe the #MillionDollarChallenge.
We have been driving our fundraising efforts through Crowdrise (Crowdrise.com/NepalEarthquakes2015) on social media. Our drive is to raise $1 million, and we have reached [at press time] $179,456. With the support from Senator Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and other members of Congress, the JRM Foundation has issued a challenge to President Obama: If we, the people, raise $1 million in donations, the U.S. government will contribute $100 million to the human cause in Nepal for disaster relief, via our Nepalese nonprofit partners to circumvent corruption and bureaucracy. We are working hard to fundraise through all possible avenues to meet this challenge and get President Obama’s attention.
What are you doing personally to share Nepal’s story?
I plan to put together a photographic exposé, The Faces of Hope. It will be composed of photos of the Nepalese people we met on this trip. Starting in California, we will tour across the country to raise funds for their cause. I am also working on concept for a journalism, fashion and music project, Levon Budding & The Cause. I already wrote four songs since I came to Nepal and will work on producing a studio album.
Where were you on May 12 when the second quake occurred?
I was at home in Los Angeles, working on my computer. I feel very sad about it, but I’m not surprised that there was another big earthquake. It was just a matter of time. The situation continues to change and, unfortunately, it goes from bad to worse. Today, we got news that a U.S. Marine helicopter and their crew went missing during the second big earthquake. [The crash of the helicopter delivering aid killed six U.S. Marines and two Nepalese service members.] My heart goes out to those servicemen and their families.
What, if anything, has prepared you for the work you’ve done in Nepal?
On the last two trips we made to Nepal, I have discovered a knack for field journalism. In business and life in general, I am most effective at maximizing other people’s potential through my skills in communication and as an organizer/arranger. I love to work with people, and to show them how to see the big picture and how their strengths can be applied best. I have 13 years of experience in the hospitality business, and it has been really helpful with this sort of work.
You sound very collected, focused and determined to make a difference personally. But was there a moment you found overwhelming?
It was at the village in Yangri, by Langtang National Park. We were sent there by a girl named Puja, whom we met at the airport in Dubai. She told us that her family in Yangri was in grave danger, cut off from the outside world. We flew helicopter missions to the area for a couple of days, landing in different locations and showing her picture to the locals. We finally found her aunt in a remote hillside village, and told her that Puja had sent us. Everyone around began to cry when they discovered that we came from across the world to find them. The village was cut off by a mudslide from the hilltop above, and a sharp ravine surrounded the other three sides with a damaged suspension bridge as the only possible way out. All of the homes in the village were destroyed, leaving no shelter whatsoever. With monsoon season beginning, we knew the bridge would soon give way, leaving no escape. Since the disaster, our group was the only one to reach them. We knew that most of the people there, if not all, would surely die if no more help comes. We told them that we would do our best to send another team and promised to tell the world about their dire situation. As we gave them whatever food we had left and boarded the helicopter, I broke down and cried. The eyes of all of those children still haunt me, and compel me to do whatever I can to help save their lives before they are swept away in a rainy mudslide, starve or die from disease.