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Students, faculty and members of the community gathered at the candlelight vigil organized by the Nepali Students Association on Wednesday night.
Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

The Nepali Students Association held a vigil Wednesday night at Gregory Plaza to express solidarity with those suffering in Nepal after the recent earthquake. 

Students gathered to remember the thousands who died Saturday in the devastating earthquake that hit Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, and surrounding regions.

The program began with the Nepali national anthem, and numerous candles lit up the steps leading into Gregory Gymnasium. Professors and students shared personal stories of their experiences during the earthquake, including engineering senior Santona Pandey, who was in Nepal at the time.

“It still feels like a nightmare,” Pandey said. “I rushed down from the fourth floor to save myself, but I realized that I could never make it. I stayed back, clinging to the door frame.”

Pandey said, as she reflects on the earthquake’s damage, what hurts the most is the constant reminder of her survival while countless others died beneath the debris of towns that no longer exist.

“I’m saved, my family is saved, but I’m not happy because thousands of people are still dying,” Pandey said.

Snehal Shingavi, an English assistant professor who was involved in aiding the Haiti earthquake victims in 2010, said Nepal can either rise from this tragedy by fixing economic problems that increased the gravity of the damage or fall into a trap leaders seeking to exploit the situation set.

“This has the potential of becoming an even worse disaster if the social conditions in Nepal allow this sort of suffering to continue,” Shingavi said. “The process of this becoming something hopeful depends on people caring about what happens in Nepal for at least another year.”

Niranjan Kc, biology junior and president of Nepali Students Association, said he has faith that current relief efforts will have a lasting positive effect on the people of Nepal.

“Even though this disaster is happening, we are staying united; we’re doing what we can,” Kc said. “We will rise out of this. This will bring a social change in Nepal. I hope that it’s for the good.”

Heather Hindman, an Asian studies and anthropology associate professor who has done extensive research on Nepal, said the earthquake can be a defining moment for the small, yet resilient nation.

“I’ve seen neighbors come together and say, ‘Hey, we need a car to drive out to Sankhu to see if we can rescue anybody,’” Hindman said. “The entire country of Nepal is mobilized right now. … It’s the youth that will turn this phenomenon into a tragedy — but not a disaster.”

Anju Dhital fled to Austin almost one year ago after a bloody civil war in Nepal tore apart her country and her family. A former teacher, she was forced to leave her country when members of the communist Maoist party threatened her for selling newspapers that criticized the uprising. They told her to leave or be killed, she said. “I didn’t have anywhere to go,” Dhital said. The revolutionaries hit her husband on the head so badly that he is now brain damaged, she said. Her mother fled to India, where she is now caring for Dhital’s 8- and 14-year-old sons. She had a very difficult journey getting here, paying smugglers high prices while they threatened her life along the way. All of her possessions were stolen, and she arrived with absolutely nothing, she said. After being held in an immigration detention facility for two months, she was referred to Casa Marianella — an East Austin shelter for asylum-seekers and homeless immigrants — and has been living there off and on for a total of four months. Dhital is one of about 25 immigrants who UT students helped at Casa Marianella on Saturday. Student volunteers from campus group Hunger and Homelessness Outreach sorted clothes and toiletries and hauled trash at Casa Marianella, while another group of students went to Posada Esperanza, a smaller house for single mothers and their children, and made Valentine’s Day cards with the children. Volunteers from the group gather every Saturday to work at shelters, soup kitchens and food and clothing banks in the Austin community. “Everyone does a small part and that contributes to the bigger picture,” said Mandara Gabriel, economics sophomore and first-time volunteer. About half of Casa Marianella’s residents are asylum-seekers, the other half are recently arrived immigrants, most from Mexico or Central America, who may be ineligible for asylum or who left their home country for a better life in the United States. Many of the residents at the shelter came from detention facilities, where immigrants and asylum-seekers often stay many months or years at a time in a prison-like setting before being called in for court dates, deported, or referred to a “casa de migrante,” a migrant house like Casa Marianella or Posada Esperanza. “The majority of our residents have presented themselves at the U.S. border and are fleeing from their home countries based on persecution of race, religion, ethnicity or belonging to a social or political group,” said Pamela Larson, Casa Marianella operations coordinator. These asylum seekers stay at the shelter often up to a year, while they receive help through the legal process. “The laws are so complex, it’s hard for anyone to work their way through,” said Melissa Buhrt, Casa Marianella assistant director. At the East Austin shelters, immigrants and asylum-seekers take advantage of ESL classes, job locating services, lawyer referrals, food and shelter while they await their court dates. “We offer case management helping them to get medical care for the long journey they’ve undergone, to counseling, because many of our individuals have been victims of human trafficking or abuse in their home nation, and so we are trying to help them recover as holistically as possible,” Larson said.

Six students repeated a simple message: “I am undocumented, and I am unafraid.” Their voices rose above the hurried shuffle of the West Mall on Tuesday morning as they shared their stories of coming to the U.S. and to UT.

Despite the danger of possible deportation, these students said it was time to speak on behalf of themselves and their communities. An estimated 200 undocumented students attend UT, according to the Office of Admissions, and 65,000 undocumented students graduate each year from U.S. high schools, according to research group The Urban Institute.

In their speeches, the students urged U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to put the DREAM Act on the Senate’s agenda before the new Congress takes office, and they want it to pass.

The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act would provide conditional permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented minors who have lived in the United States since at least age 15, and who either attend college or join the armed services for at least two years. The earliest version of the legislation appeared before Congress in 2001 and despite consistent bipartisan support, it has never passed into law.

“I remember driving up [Interstate Highway 35] with my mom, and the first thing that caught my attention was the UT Tower,” said Daniel Olvera, a government and education senior and historian of undocumented student and allies group University Leadership Initiative. “From that day forward, I made a pact with myself that I would obtain an education at this University. I made it, I’m in college and about to finish. Now, the struggle is stronger than ever. We will not be able to give back to the country that we love with the skills and talents we gain here through our hard work.”

Five other ULI members from Mexico, Guatemala and Nepal declared their undocumented status, offering their own experience as a testament to the necessity of the DREAM Act. Edilsa Lopez, a business and international relations junior and ULI vice president, shed tears as she described her experience being kidnapped twice and finally brought to Brownsville at age 13, where she escaped her captor and sought help from family members and strangers.

Lopez now works in odd jobs and as a designer to put herself through school and support her three orphaned younger siblings, two who are still in Guatemala and one who is living in Houston.

“I still have one more year to graduate, and I recently was nominated for the Presidential Leadership Award at UT,” Lopez said. “I have to support my siblings financially because I am the only support they have, and I have to support myself and maintain myself in school so I can succeed. There are many who call me a criminal because I am undocumented, but I didn’t have the choice to come here.”

These students are not in serious threat of deportation, as immigration officials have shown little interest in targeting individuals without ties to major crime, said sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez, who specializes in migrant and immigration research and policy. However, their cries for the DREAM Act’s passage may fall on deaf ears as Republicans approach legislation with new energy after success in the Nov. 2 elections, and prospects for the 2011-12 congress are even bleaker for DREAM Act supporters, Rodriguez said.

“The group that got increased presence and power are the Republicans, including the minority of tea party people,” Rodriguez said. “These are not the sources for more inclusion of immigrants and amnesty or legalization. For these undocumented students, that means a larger wall.”

Reid campaigned for re-election on a promise to put the DREAM Act up for a vote during the lame duck session, but his office reported that although he hopes to pass it before January, they are uncertain of being able to gain the necessary Republican support.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said she would not vote for the current version of the DREAM Act, although she does support expanded educational options for undocumented students.

“The DREAM Act now being discussed in the Senate needs to have more input in order to determine a fair process, and I would not support the bill as it is,” Hutchison said. “I previously worked on an alternative that would allow young people who have gone through school in the United States and want to pursue a college education to get a student visa.”

However, ULI members said the fight for the DREAM Act will not end until the law passes. State legislators have added more than 15 immigration-related bills to the spring docket since Monday, when it became possible to do so. Many came from state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Houston, including two that mirror aspects of the controversial Arizona bill SB 1070. With this in mind, ULI students said they will keep fighting for representation and rights as the Americans they believe they are.

“I’m very much like everybody at this University, except for a nine-digit number,” said Him Ranjit, biomedical engineering and government sophomore and ULI treasurer who came from Nepal with his family at age 10. “The opposition doesn’t want us to achieve our full potential, but we are fighting for our lives, and we won’t stop until we win.”