Dahlia Yehia didn’t tell her boss that she was resigning in order to volunteer in Nepal. But it was no surprise to Mary Brinkman when she found out that the young art teacher had left the country to help with recovery in the wake of the devastating April 25 earthquake.
“That was Dahlia. She was very altruistic,” Brinkman, principal at Sci-Tech Preparatory in Austin told The Washington Post. “She was a gentle soul and a wonderful person and extremely caring about others in the world.”
What did come as a shock was the painful news that Yehia had been killed just a few weeks into her trip. Police in Nepal told The Washington Post that Narayan Paudel, a local teacher, has admitted to beating the young woman to death.
Yehia, who was 25, arrived in Nepal in July, according to a Find Dahlia Facebook page, and on Aug. 4 traveled on her own to Pokhara, a city 125 miles northwest of Kathmandu. The last anyone had heard from her was a WhatsApp message the following day.
Then, a month of silence and desperate searching.
According to police, Yehia was staying in Paudel’s home in Pokhara when he beat her and abandoned her body in the Seti river nearby. Police said that the two had been in touch for roughly six months via couchsurfing.com, a social networking site that connects travelers with hosts who will give them a place to stay. Couchsurfing has previously been criticized as unsafe — earlier this year, the Investigative Reporting Project in Italy found that an Italian police officer jailed for raping a 16-year-old traveler he was hosting had used the site to lure 14 other young women to his home.
According to police, Paudel told them that he killed Yehia for her iPhone and money that she had recently withdrawn from an ATM. Nepalese officials, who began investigating Yehia’s disappearance after being contacted by the American Embassy on Aug. 28, were able to track him down via the phone.
Paudel was arrested on Sept. 2. Two days later, authorities said, he attempted to commit suicide by jumping from the roof of the jail. He is currently undergoing treatment at a local hospital.
Police still haven’t been able to recover Yehia’s body.
According to the Find Dahlia Facebook page, Yehia had left a group of fellow travelers after spending time in Gorkha, a mountainous district that was at the epicenter of the earthquake. It’s not yet clear what organization she was volunteering with, if any. Nor is it clear what the young traveler was doing in Pokhara before her death.
In own writing and in the memories of those who mourned her on Facebook, Yehia was a humanitarian with a case of wanderlust.
Her high school principal, Jason Fink, wrote in a statement to Michigan TV station WOOD that Yehia was a “strong woman who desired to make the world a better place.” As a teenager at Portage Central High School, Yehia had devoted her senior art project to the plight of child soldiers in Uganda — years before the Kony 2012 campaign made the issue a cause célèbre.
At Kalamazoo College, where she was a student from 2007-2011, Yehia studied painting and traveled to Ecuador. After graduating, she packed her belongings and post-college anxieties into a car and drove 1,800 miles to Phoenix.
“The trip was pretty terrifying — the longest I’d ever driven at one time was 6 hours, I didn’t know anybody where I was going, and to say that I’m awkward and shy is the understatement of the year,” she wrote on her blog. “This trip was just what I needed to feel like the last 4 years of college was good for something — cause god knows the job market wasn’t helping with that.”
Yehia approached Phoenix with an adventurer’s spirit: no plans and a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants faith that things would work out. After a short time of living in her car and hunting for housing, she befriended two other young women and quickly wound up becoming their roommate, she wrote. Soon after that, she was drawing logos and making art for a band that her roommate’s boyfriend played in.
For the next few years, Yehia hopscotched around the country, according to LinkedIn. She was a woodworker, teacher and youth care specialist in Phoenix, an arts and social justice coordinator in East Boston and then an art teacher at Sci-Tech Prep in Austin.
“The students here loved Dahlia,” Brinkman, the school’s principal, wrote on the Find Dahlia Facebook Page. “She was the cool art teacher, especially when she was brave enough to take the high school art students downtown by city bus to the Graffiti Park to express themselves! Imagine a bunch of teenagers carrying cans of spray paint in their backpacks onto the city bus. That was what art was like at Sci-Tech with Dahlia!”
Friends and family who were contacted by the Post declined to comment about her death out of respect for her family’s privacy. On the Find Dahlia Facebook page, a message bearing the news of her death urged people to post condolences online instead. Dozens of people responded — some were friends, who recalled her fierce activism, quirky creativity and generous spirit; others were commenters who never knew her but wanted to express their sympathy.
“For those who haven’t had the joy of spending time with Dahlia,” the Facebook post read, “know that she is a giver, lover and humanitarian, who devoted her life to others less fortunate both domestic and abroad.”
Pradeep Bashyal reported from Nepal
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