California State University, Fresno - Campus News


FEATURE STORY: Dangi: a Fresno State action hero in Nepal

One moment Dr. Mohan Dangi was on his way back to Fresno after helping with Nepal earthquake relief efforts, and the next he was about to be pulverized by a huge rock headed right for his vehicle. The driver gunned it, and thus Dr. Dangi survived a mortal threat which is reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie.

Normally, Dangi (Geography and City and Regional Planning) is involved in something more tame, such as environmental science and engineering, particularly solid waste. “I study garbage wherever I go,” he quips.

But his ordinary life turned extraordinary when he came home one Saturday in April to hear his four-year-old daugher ask if Nepal would ever be rebuilt again after the earthquake. That got him thinking.

“If Nepal is going through this tremendous loss and sorrow, what can we do?” he asked himself.

Born in Nepal, Dangi has immediate family members still living there who, luckily, were not hurt in the earthquake because they were not close to the epicenter in Kathmandu, but he had colleagues who lost people close to them.

“When I talked to people in Nepal, including government officials, I heard that it happened Saturday,” he said. "I believe it was 11:56 in the morning, Nepal time, and schools were closed. I heard that at least 200,000 to 300,000 or more people would have been killed if schools were in session.”

Clearing debris in Rasuwa.
Reports say that more than 9,000 people were killed and 23,000 injured in the original quake, which triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest. More than 200 people were killed and more than 2,500 were injured by the aftershock in May. People out in the field survived, in many cases, but hundreds of thousands were displaced.

President Joseph I. Castro responded quickly by asking campus to contribute funds to UNICEF and other emergency response organizations. A campus vigil was held on May 1.

On campus, Dangi and Shailesh Rana (Craig School of Business) — with the help of the Geography Club, the Nepalese community in Fresno and Visalia, and Nepalese faculty and students at Fresno State — raised more than $12,500 for UNICEF efforts. Together, they galvanized their small Nepalese community in Fresno and Visalia into action.

Rana said the impact of the earthquake on Nepal was devastating, and his family members who were in Nepal had to stay in tents for several days. The focus for Fresno State was how to assist in recovery.

In some cases, campus efforts to help included more than contributing funds to relief efforts. John Dussich (Criminology) was in Nepal from June 2-13 to provide help with disaster crisis intervention and recovery strategies. "The Nepalese people are resilient, hard-working and very hospitable," Dussich said. "As a volunteer, it was easy to connect with like-minded Nepali volunteers."

After raising funds for UNICEF, Dangi decided to visit Nepal himself. His son, who was in third grade, helped his elementary school to raise close to $2,000 and asked if his dad could build a school in Nepal. Dangi found a rural district up in the mountains called Rasuwa, which was very close to the Chinese border. The community requested $14,300 to build five classrooms, an office, two restrooms, a cafeteria, and a playground.

“I thought, if I could do this, it would be an important thing, not just for me, but for the children of Nepal who just lost their school,” Dangi said.

"The idea was ... even if only a handful of these students get the opportunity to pursue higher education and become successful, just imagine what an impact that handful can have in their community and the world,” Rana said.

Dangi contacted his friends and colleagues in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Texas, and Virginia and got them to help. Rana assisted in the effort by involving Clovis Unified School District, where his daughter attended kindergarten. They saw rebuilding the Nepalese rural school as a step toward a better future.

After raising an initial $7,000 with Rana's help, Dangi headed for Rasuwa. Dangi's brother, with the Nepalese community in Colorado, raised another $3,000.

Part of the partnership that formed University of Wyoming’s collaboration in the Himalayas, Dangi regularly visits Nepal, but this was different. This location was very remote. And yet, as soon as he landed in Nepal on June 21, he was immediately off, jet-lag notwithstanding, getting delayed by a landslide, and eventually taking refuge from the monsoon season in a villager’s goat farm, which itself was damaged by the earthquake.

Constant bombardment by landslides on the western part of the mountain threatened the villagers. Dangi would work all day with 10 volunteers and 37 villagers who came in shifts. The work required clearing the debris of two buildings without heavy machinery and no safety equipment.

“You just had to work with a shovel or digging bar and bare hands,” Dangi said.

Besides clearing the debris, Dangi had to come up with the design of the new building, expedite government approval for the engineering designs, and accomplish groundbreaking tasks. One night, after finishing his trip out of the village to get government approvals and communicate with his colleagues in the U.S. about the reconstruction of school, he was stymied by a landslide that stranded him for a time near the army barracks.

While the work progressed, Dangi and his colleagues also collected data for a Fresno State study on the effect the quake may have had on villagers' day-to-day lives. The researchers also studied the impact of the earthquake on livelihood and environment in Rasuwa, Nepal. On the day of the landslide that trapped Dangi, it was a real challenge for them to ascertain whether everyone was safe and make sure no one was cut off on the other side of the mountain.

Landslides weren’t the only danger. Dangi said meals were a bit unusual. Besides fighting off a flock of flies, he often found his plate cleaned mysteriously.

“The minute we were done eating, we would go off to wash our hands, and then when we came back, the plate was completely washed … by a dog,” Dangi said. “The dog would lick the plate, and he’s not a dishwasher!”

Dangi admits that at times he felt like he was back in time 100 years, but the people seemed happy, even though most of them had their homes destroyed.

“At the end, I felt very moved to leave them,” he said.

But the danger wasn’t over yet. As he was headed back toward Kathmandu, what looked like a whole side of a mountain came rushing toward their vehicle before his driver performed the Indiana Jones escape. “What can you do? We just speeded,” he said. “We made it. If that rock had fallen on us, we would have been like chutney.”

So, on July 5, our hero, like Indiana Jones, having escaped death more than once, returned to Fresno, where his efforts — and the efforts of heroes like him — continue to help the people of Nepal.




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