Hamline News


The 'Accidental Journalist'

By Shannon Prather

Peering over the edge of an open helicopter, Amrit Sharma '09 takes in a bird's eye view of hundreds of landslides blanketing the steep Nepali countryside. After touching down in one of the devastated villages, he helps relief crews deliver tents, blankets, rice, and supplies to survivors.

The software engineer-turned-journalist hardly recognized the country where he grew up after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck on April 25, 2015, killing more than 9,000 people and injuring approximately 23,000.

He's made it his mission to assist with aid efforts and provide a firsthand account of the recovery. Documenting the devastation is gritty, emotional work, but something he feels called to do.

Sharma humbly refers to himself as a "friendly neighborhood accidental journalist in Nepal." However, his blog covering the earthquake and its aftermath has drawn an international audience topping 100,000 page visits.

Sharma's reports and photos have been featured in The Huffington Post, he's worked as an embedded Nepali translator for the Associated Press, and he's helped other foreign journalists navigate the country. His reports from the earthquake zone are spurring action, including the creation of a children's crisis counseling initiative in Nepal.

Sharma also rolls up his sleeves to assist aid workers. "I don't mind getting my hands dirty and helping out," he says. Asked what fuels his work, he explains:

"It just happened to be a way I felt I could have the most impact. It just felt like the right thing to do." Sharma, 28, was born in New Delhi, India, but grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal. He moved to the United States to attend Hamline University.

His interest in international aid work was ignited during his college years. On campus, Sharma co-founded a relief organization in 2004 after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed an estimated 230,000 people in 14 countries. The group raised $10,000 in 200 days. He also served as president of the International Student Organization.

After graduation, Sharma found a comfortable corporate life in the Twin Cities but realized he wasn't content to sit behind a desk just yet. Determined to make the most of his 20s, he sold his home, quit his software engineering job, and set out to travel the world.

Sharma was in India when he heard about the earthquake from his mother in Kathmandu. "I just knew instinctively I had to get there as soon as possible even if I didn't have a plan," he says.

Sharma ended up on a flight with more than 100 journalists traveling to the disaster zone. He made connections with reporters, who sought his advice and knowledge of the region.

It struck him that many of the reporters already had their return tickets booked—they'd be in and out of Nepal in less than a week's time. "Their time was limited," he says. "I was just saddened. They were looking for collapsed monuments and the death toll."

As Sharma walked the streets of Kathmandu in the days after the earthquake, he saw the faces of survivors and rescuers. He saw the anguish, the fear, and the years of recovery ahead.

"I didn't know what I should do in Nepal to help out, but I knew that this was a historic day," he says. "This was history, and I had to document it. I witnessed search and rescue operations in person. I stayed out of their way, took photos, and jotted down notes. The experience was surreal, overwhelming,and challenging, yet it hadn't sunk in yet. The early seeds of journalism were planted that day."

Sharma often focuses on people in his reports—people like 6-year-old Susma, who lay buried in the rubble of her former home for hours after the quake. Susma survived, but her 10-year-old brother didn't.

Amrit accompanied the JRM Foundation for Humanity to Susma's village, where they delivered food. "Physically, Susma is fine and has recovered fully," Sharma wrote. "But I could feel her nervousness. It was part heartbreak, part trauma, and part loneliness."

That blog post led the JRM Foundation to create the Susma Project, which provides post-earthquake trauma counseling for children in schools and orphanages across Kathmandu.

Sharma wants people to know Nepal is still in need of help.

"The monsoon season is starting now, and a lot of people are still living under plastic tarps," he says. "I can foresee bigger challenges, like lack of accessibility to villages, landslides, and water-borne diseases."

Sharma's blog is at blog.amritsharma.com. Watch a video interview with Amrit here