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Earthquake brings opportunity in Nepal 02:43

From the darkness of disaster, a ray of hope for one girl in Nepal

Updated 8:13 AM ET, Sat April 23, 2016

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Story highlights

  • A year ago, the Nepal earthquake changed the life of 10-year-old Maya Gurung
  • Doctors amputated her left leg; life looked bleak for the village girl
  • Then a second quake altered her life again, in a way no one could have imagined
  • CNN's Moni Basu returns to Nepal to find a ray of hope in a nation still in despair

Kathmandu, Nepal (CNN)On this hot April day in the Nepalese capital, Maya Gurung wears black tights under a striped knee-length dress. She is trying not to be conspicuous, but other details give her away.

At 4 feet 10 inches, she towers over classmates barely out of toddler stage. At lunch, she is the only one who doesn't need a bib. And all the other children call her Maya didi, using the Nepali term of respect for an older sister.
Maya will be 11 soon and only recently made it to kindergarten. Still, it is a triumph she has come this far.
Maya is not from this bustling city, which lures mountaineers aiming for Everest and tourists mesmerized by the Himalayan kingdom's rich history and culture. She comes from a remote and rugged place not frequented by outsiders.
She is one of six children in a family that lives off the land and livestock in Kashi Gaon, a village in Nepal's mountainous Gorkha District. Maya helped her mother with cooking, cleaning and fetching firewood and water. She was destined to be married at a tender age and grow old within the confines of her birthplace.
She knew little of the world outside. Life's possibilities escaped her.
But a year ago, on April 25, the earth shook violently for a minute, and in those 60 devastating seconds, Maya's life was forever changed.
Her left leg was crushed and could not be saved.
Several days later, a second quake rattled Nepal, bringing down more buildings, ending more lives. On that day, Maya's trajectory changed again, but in a way no one could have predicted.
The second quake gave her a rare second chance at life in a nation ravaged by nature's cruelty.
Ten-year-old Maya Gurung lost a leg in the earthquake a year ago but gained something else: a chance at a new future.
Nearly 9,000 people died in Nepal in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and the 7.3 aftershock; millions of lives were shattered. Recovery has been so slow that some people here say their country will never be the same. Centuries-old buildings and temples lie cracked or in ruins, like festering national wounds. In many areas, the rubble remains. Thousands live under makeshift shelters fashioned from plastic, bamboo and corrugated tin. Maya might have been one of them.
I first met her just days after the first quake in the Kathmandu hospital where her leg was amputated. She was confined to a bed; thick bandages covered her fresh wound. I visited her several times and when I left, I carried with me an image of a frightened little girl, traumatized and howling in pain.
A year later, I returned to the Nepalese capital to learn if anything good had blossomed from the horror.

A new beginning

I arrive at a large house on the outskirts of the city, eager to speak with Maya.
My first glimpse of her on this trip is vastly different. She is sitting on a sunny porch, amid pots of pink geraniums and pinwheel petunias. The garden is lush with flowers and organically grown vegetables.
    She has been on holiday during the Nepali new year break and has just returned from a short trip home to see her family in Kashi Gaon. The next day, she will return to Angel's Garden, the kindergarten she has been attending for almost a year.
    She gets up from her chair, and I can see she looks healthier. She has traded the cement-like millet porridge that filled her belly in the village for finer fare like rice and chicken curry.
    Except for her limp, it's hard to tell she is missing part of her left leg, her prosthetic concealed on this day by yellow pants and dark socks. There are few hints of the tragedy that befell her.
    She plays with Luna, the dog that belongs to the owners of this house, a family that has embraced her as their own. She speaks very little, but I attribute that to timidity. She is a quiet, reserved girl.
    In this part of Kathmandu, in this house, there are no telltale signs of the events a year ago that splintered thousands of lives -- except in the kitchen. There, a white board is filled with family scribbles and these words:
    "Great Earthquake of 2015. April 25. May 12."
    Maya recites phrases in English in her kindergarten. She will soon turn 11  and hopes to catch up to children her age.

    A bleak future

    April 25 last year fell on a Saturday, and that morning Maya had no school. She woke up and walked up the hill to carry back drinking water for her family, like she did every morning. There was no indoor plumbing or potable water at the family's home.
    The dirt paths in Kashi Gaon are steep, uneven and laden with rocks, pebbles and boulders. Maya has grown adept at navigating them. Everyone gets accustomed to walking long distances in Gorkha; it's a way of life in Nepal's mountainous districts, the only way to get around.
    Maya's father, Bhim Bahadur Gurung, is an uneducated man who worked the fields growing barley and maize or tending goats and cattle. The prize of his hardscrabble life: his house and wife and children.
    Maya's baby sister was only 3 months old and her mother, Mukni, depended on her elder daughter as a vital extra set of hands. Though Maya walked 50 minutes to school on weekdays and had made it to the fourth grade, education was not the family priority. Almost 40% of the women in Gorkha District are illiterate.
    That Saturday morning, Maya finished her chores and set off with her uncle Dami and his 5-year-old daughter, Manisha, to graze cows. They made their way to lower ground and drifted far from Maya's home.
    At 11:56 a.m., the earth rumbled under Maya's feet. Her entire world was moving and it felt as though the Himalayas would swallow everyone whole. A storm of boulders, rocks, parts of houses and other debris came hurtling down the mountainside.
    Dami gathered the two girls and began running for shelter. He tried to dodge the rocks but could not. A boulder crushed Maya's left foot and lower leg.
    She screamed in pain as her uncle, also injured, carried Maya and his own badly bruised daughter, trying to get back to their village.
    Maya's parents did not know where she was. Her father returned from the fields to an apocalyptic sight. Almost every house in Kashi Gaon, including his family's, lay flattened or badly damaged. Gorkha was one of two districts that were hardest hit.
      Bhim Bahadur searched frantically until he finally found his daughter, wrapped her leg in rags and tried to find help. The few medical facilities in Kashi Gaon that are equipped to treat earthquake injuries were reduced to rubble.
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      It took time for rescue helicopters to navigate Gorkha District's hilly terrain. Maya's mangled leg remained untreated. Finally, on Sunday, Bhim Bahadur hopped aboard a Nepalese army chopper with Maya. But when it stopped to pick up more of the injured, he was ordered off. He watched the helicopter lift to the sky, carrying his daughter away, thankful for the aid she would get but anxious that she would face her darkest moments alone.
      He hitchhiked, boarded buses and walked to Kathmandu. He searched hospital after hospital until he finally found Maya four days later. She was at Tribhuban University Teaching Hospital, where many earthquake victims were receiving free or low-cost care.
      Hot tears streamed down her dust-caked cheeks. A green woolen blanket covered her from the waist down on bed number 41. She grabbed her father tight.
      Bhim Bahadur's relief was short-lived. He soon saw the bandage on Maya's leg, with a date scribbled on it. Doctors told him they were forced to amputate from the shin down, that it would have been much worse had they taken her leg above the knee.
      It didn't matter. He knew instantly what the future held for his daughter.
      Nepal's steep and rocky land would show her no mercy. She would no longer be able to help out at home and would have to be carried everywhere. And when she grew older, who would take care of her? No man would want her as a bride.
      Life in Nepal is filled with uncertainties for poor people like Maya. The earthquake made lives even more ominous.
      Maya, who towers over classmates, otherwise tries to blend in by wearing tights over her prosthetic even when it's warm.

      The Good Samaritan

      Jwalant Gurung shares a last name with Maya, common to Nepalis who belong to the Gurung ethnic group. But he might as well be a foreigner. His life is that different from hers.
      Jwalant, 40, grew up in Kathmandu, the son of a former soldier in the British Army's famed Gurkha Regiment and a pioneer in Nepal's trekking industry. His father, Dinesh Gurung, worked in the nation's first trekking company and then launched his own, Crystal Mountain Treks, in 1990.
      Jwalant earned an MBA from the University of Washington and worked a few jobs before he returned to his true love: the mountains. He took over his father's business after he retired and now competes with about 1,700 other travel agencies that help guide the thousands of foreigners who flock to Nepal each year to hike and climb in the Himalayas.
      Jwalant, the city slicker, is as adept at traversing the terrain of Gorkha District as the villagers. But he is more than a mountaineer.
      For his MBA project, he organized a fundraising climb of Washington's Mount Rainier to further rural education in places like Kashi Gaon. Since then, his charity, 3 Summits for Nepal, has built six schools and is in the process of finishing two more.
        He believes in the power of education. He's seen it in his own home, where his parents, over the years, have taken in children from disenfranchised families and given them a chance to improve their lots in life.
        A year ago, on April 25, Jwalant was on a scouting trek on the Kopra Ridge, a route in the shadows of the snow-capped Annapurna range. When the Earth began convulsing, Jwalant ran for his life and made it back safely to Kathmandu, where he began helping earthquake victims. Singla, a village near the epicenter, was home to one of his guides and several of his porters. The disaster had become personal.
        By May 12, Jwalant had walked for two days and reached the village of Rumchet with tarps, medicine, blankets and rice. That was when the second quake, a massive 7.3 aftershock, struck.
        More homes crumbled or stood precariously on ledges, waiting for a landslide to take them down. In the chaos, Jwalant spotted a girl traveling with her family. She was missing her left leg and one of her brothers was carrying her on his back.
        Jwalant wanted to help.
        His friend, Bibek Banskota, was an orthopedic surgeon whose father, also a doctor, had returned to Nepal from America many years ago to treat underprivileged children from remote villages. Jwalant knew Bibek would agree to examine the girl.
        It wasn't easy to convince Maya's father, but Jwalant assured him he would take care of his precious daughter. He brought her back to Kathmandu, where she was treated at the Banskotas' nonprofit Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children, which specializes in pediatric orthopedics.
        In the weeks that followed, Maya settled into Jwalant's house and was fitted with a prosthetic.
        Outside the hospital, rows and rows of tents provided shelter for earthquake victims desperately needing care. Inside, Maya's life had taken an unexpected turn.
        Maya gets ready for school. Because she is still growing, she must periodically be fitted with a new prosthetic.

        City life for a village girl

        The house with the garden where I first see Maya again belongs to Jwalant's parents, Dinesh and Anita. Maya is spending her last day of vacation there before returning to Kathmandu and the start of the new school year.
        Two of the children Anita and Dinesh have taken in over the years are also here on this day. Ashmaya is 15 now; Nirmala, 25.
        Ashmaya fell ill with meningitis as a child, and it left her completely blind. Anita, a retired teacher, pays for her education at a nearby boarding school.
        Nirmala is the daughter of a rickshaw puller who was sponsored by an Italian tourist to attend Anita's school. But after three years, he vanished and Anita took Nirmala under her wing. She earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and works for Crystal Mountain Treks.
        "Nirmala has become like my own daughter," Anita tells me, looking with pride at the young woman dressed in jeans and a North Face shirt.
        In Nirmala, Anita sees what Maya could be one day. But the transformation won't be easy.
        The village schools in Nepal are often crowded and lack resources and good teachers. Maya was in the fourth grade, but her knowledge and skills were on nursery level when she arrived at her new school in Kathmandu.
        She didn't speak much. She didn't know any English or even Nepali -- she communicated in the Gurung dialect.
        Jwalant's world was alien to Maya. She was plucked from a poor village in one of the poorest countries in the world and suddenly exposed to a lifestyle of upscale restaurants, gyms, private cars and shopping malls.
        And it was not just the shock of leaving Kashi Gaon for Kathmandu. Maya was still coping with her own earthquake trauma.
        "It will take time," Anita says. "Maya is not very open with us. When she first came here she knew nothing. But she has learned many things -- to stay neat and clean, wash her hands before eating, combing her hair. She has learned the alphabet and is speaking a little bit."
        Anita pats Maya's shoulder and continues: "Had Jwalant not met her, what would have happened to her? She is the luckiest girl."
        Later in the day, the family gets ready for a friend's wedding. Anita has decided to take Maya with her, as part of her education.
        Weddings in this part of the world can be extravagant events, lavish displays of wealth. At the rented party hall in central Kathmandu, men are in suits and women in expensive silk saris. Maya wears a simple cotton kameez (a long tunic) over black jeans and socks to cover her prosthetic. She follows Anita around. In the receiving line, she cannot take her eyes off the bride, resplendent in a coral sari with gold brocade.
        Maya is not always able to express her hopes and fears. But I can imagine her thinking about the day she might become a bride, about looking like a princess. Perhaps now there is a chance to realize those dreams.
        The wedding, Anita tells me, is a good life experience for Maya. Maya thinks so too, especially after two servings of ice cream.
        But everywhere she goes are reminders of who she is and where she came from.
        Two teenage girls sit next to Maya and ask what grade she is in.
        Kindergarten, Maya answers. The girls look surprised and size her up.
        Nirmala feels compelled to explain. "She came from a village."
        Maya washes her clothes outside the home of a family that has given her a new life in Kathmandu.

        A winner

        The next morning, Maya returns to Jwalant's house in the city. It's where he was raised. The trekking business consumes the ground floor; Maya sleeps upstairs in the room that once belonged to Jwalant's sister.
        Maya's kindergarten, Angel's Kingdom, is a 10-minute walk from the house. Anything longer than that becomes too painful. When she went home during the break, she walked eight hours to reach her parents' place, the prosthetic leg chafing her skin until it was bloody.
        Jwalant takes Maya to see her orthopedic surgeon every three months. Because she is still growing, she has to be fitted with a new leg periodically. When she reaches adulthood, Jwalant hopes to get her a high-tech prosthetic, perhaps titanium.
        At school, Maya smiles and plays with the innocence of her 5-year-old cohorts. She rarely talks about the earthquake; she says she doesn't remember everything that happened. Who could blame her if she has willed her memory to be fuzzy?
        In the heat of summer, her teachers encourage her to remove the prosthetic, but Maya refuses. She wants to look normal.
        Jwalant enrolled her at Angel's Kingdom because the small school emphasizes creativity and uses alternative ways of teaching. (Learning by rote tends to be more common in Nepal.) The children are encouraged to draw, sing and interact.
        Maya, says Jwalant, was starving for all these things. He shows me her first-term report card -- a series of As and only one B for spelling. "She is very talented," wrote a teacher, "but needs to improve her speaking ability."
        The grades are no doubt lenient, but Jwalant says Maya has changed during the past year. She is no longer the scared little girl he ran into on a rugged mountainside. Underneath Maya's fragile facade, Jwalant sees a quiet strength.
        "A child that age to have lost a leg like that, to have gone through all that trauma, she's definitely a winner," he says.
        "I've not seen her sit in the corner and cry, or cry for her parents. I know if I had lost my leg I'd be angry at the world ... but you don't see that in her."
        Maya's father says he is content to have his daughter live with Jwalant in Kathmandu. He recognizes the constraints on her if she returned to the village, and he has come to understand the value of schooling.
        "I will let her stay as long as she can stay," he says. "She has to be happy."
        But caring for Maya isn't always easy for Jwalant, who is not married and does not have children of his own. Maya calls him "Dai," the Nepali term for older brother. I ask if he thinks of Maya as a daughter.
        "I think I'd say I'm like a godfather because she does have parents, and I don't want to take that from them," he says.
        "I do love her."
        Joyful moments like this seemed unattainable just a year ago as Maya lay wincing in pain in a hospital bed.

        Luck -- and fate

        It's instinctive to think of Maya as a lucky girl, especially in the greater context of Nepal. In some places I visited on my return here, the earthquake feels fresh, as though it struck yesterday. That's how slow the recovery process has been.
        Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis, including those in Maya's village, are living in temporary or unsafe housing, desperate for assistance so they can get their lives back on track.
        "I definitely think she was lucky to run into me that day," Jwalant tells me one evening. "But on the other hand, she lost a leg. I don't know how you weigh one against the other."
        From disaster, he says, came a chance for one little Nepali girl, a chance to learn, to grow, to lead a full life that may have been denied her had she remained secluded in her village, mired in a life of poverty.
        But as much of a dreamer as Jwalant may be, he is also a pragmatic man. He acknowledges that saving Maya in a moment of utter despair is not enough. Success requires a toughness on Maya's part. She will not succeed, he tells me, if she doesn't have a will of steel.
        I look at Maya as she plays with Jwalant's puppies. They crawl over her back and on top of her head. She smiles and giggles like any young girl. I could not have imagined this scene the first time I saw her wincing in pain on a hospital bed.
        The earthquake a year ago threatened Maya with lifelong misery. The second tremor created a twist so fortuitous that it made hope possible amid destruction and despair.
        But her fate in post-earthquake Nepal remains undetermined. Ultimately, only Maya holds the key.