I was fortunate this morning to attend a lecture: Orphanage Trafficking and Volunteering – The Hidden Tragedy, given by Martin Punaks, Country Director of Next Generation Nepal. This is my reflection on what he said.
Evil Can Wear a Compassionate Face
You have come to the Internet in search of an answer. How can you give back? You want to do something about the vicious poverty gap between the rich and the poor and the suffering of children. As a concerned, aware individual you want to act – this is very laudable.
It seems that orphanages in Nepal are crying out for volunteers. Great. Here is something positive you can do to make a difference. You were going to visit Nepal anyway. A certain site looks convincing and well run, with glowing references from people like you. You fill out the form. Ninety seconds later you are in. You are going to volunteer in an orphanage – how cool is that?
Well, it turns out not so cool.
More than 80% of orphanages in Nepal are fronts for child trafficking. You will pay child traffickers anything from $200 to $500 to volunteer in orphanages in Pokhara, Kathmandu or Chitwan. The staff will appear compassionate and the home well run. Everybody will love and appreciate your contribution. But behind the convincing front is a world of child exploitation, and by extension, exploitation of you, the volunteer.
This can’t be true, can it? Nepal is a gentle place. Anyway, people are not that evil. You see the pictures of big-eyed children, ripped from their homes. Beseeching, isolated, malnourished, they reach out to you. Ripped from their homes, yes. But not by death or tragic external circumstance like an earthquake, but by traffickers. Malnourished? Yes. Because traffickers starve the children. It makes for a more lucrative exploitation of you, the idealistic volunteer.
In Nepal, people see education as a way out of poverty. A friend, an uncle, a trusted member of the local rural community promises parents a good education for their children. For a price. In return the trafficker says he has arranged to send the children to a good boarding school in Kathmandu. Then the trafficked children disappear. Taken from their families, they vanish into orphanages run by the traffickers and helped by you, the nice volunteer. Often the children are never seen again. Some of them are too young to know what their family name is, or where they are from. Almost all have living parents or relatives.
The potential for all kinds of abuse in orphanages in Nepal is great. Sexual, emotional and physical abuse is common. Groomed children elicit money. Starved, abused and exploited, they are bait for sympathetic western souls with deep pockets. As a volunteer you imagine you will make a difference. You will teach soccer, reading and bond with the children, earning their trust and respect, and a relationship will form. Then after ten days, a month, you will leave. Bullied into fear, your new friends will have been too afraid to speak the truth to you.
By leaving you will be subjecting the child to the trauma of separation all over again. And no, it is not worth it for that scant, illegal time you spend working in Nepal. Any positives you may bring will disappear back into suffering when you leave. After you have gone the cycle of exploitation, cruelty and misery will begin again. You, the innocent volunteer, will have ended up doing more harm than good, unintentionally inflicting damage when you wanted to heal.
Visitors to Nepal on tourist visas are not allowed to volunteer or undertake work of any kind. To do so is to insult the Nepalese people and the government. While this law is more often broken than observed, it is worth remembering. There is no place for unqualified volunteers amongst traumatised children. Without qualifications or experience would you be able to volunteer in a home for abused children in your country? So ask yourself. Why would it be OK in Nepal?
There are genuine orphanages run by qualified staff in Nepal, just as there are excellent volunteer agencies. There are also many alternatives to volunteering. Following the earthquake Nepal needs tourists to return. It doesn’t need untrained volunteers — the number of real orphans following the quake is low. Even if parents are dead, relatives and communities provide support.
As an educated tourist who understands something about the country you are more valuable than a volunteer. Research, learn, disseminate, keep a blog. These things have value. What you see and experience here is fuel for your life. A chance to educate. Go for high octane.
Volunteering is powerful. It provides a life-altering experience. Positive volunteer contributions are best made through formal, well-established agencies. But, beware, it will take you more than ninety seconds to apply.
You want to offer practical help? Fundraise for projects that support keeping real orphans in their communities. Create awareness of organisations like Next Generation Nepal. They rescue trafficked children from orphanages, rehabilitate them and reunite them with their families.
Don’t let child traffickers exploit you. The world is your oyster. Look elsewhere for the pearls. However much your conscience tugs at you, do no harm. For the sake of the trafficked children, don’t volunteer to work in orphanages in Nepal.
A woman screaming in the road. I run upstairs and peer over the balcony. Black hair, mid-thirties, orange pants, long shirt and flip flops. I first thought she was letting go at two young women in less than modest pants and tops who had turned and were giggling. Throwing up her arms she turned to a tall gate and unleashed a fury of slamming, heaving the gate open and shut with manic force. She unleashed a stream of verbal fury at a passing motorcycle. The owners of the house came running out and barricaded the gate. Our guard and various passers by stopped to look and hastily moved on. Still screaming and shouting the woman turned and walked away, bow legged, shouting and muttering. Dogs barked as she made her way out of sight. Now all is still again, as though a huge boulder had been dropped into a lake of silence, and all that remains are these words, like ripples, fading away.
The rain is falling, the sky is washing over us. E. sits on the balcony, feet up, laptop half closed on his lap, Tikki asleep by his side. The sound of water outside, and inside as the fountain forms an umbrella of water, splashing into the pond. Beneath us liquid boiling rock evolves more or less smoothly under the plate supporting millions of lives, loves, memories, beliefs. We are moving, imperceptibly, but measurably every day. And still the rain falls and the lava flows and for an instant the rock is balanced, holding station on the production line of mountains flowing beneath the city.
A whirlwind of flights, warm embraces, familiar faces all the way from KTM to Falls Church, Orlando, Glen Farg, Applecross, Bognor Regis, Bath, Pill Creek, London. I got very superstitious as the days counted down in KTM before our departure. What could possibly go wrong? What savage bite on the ass was waiting around the corner? But we lifted off, wheels up, and we were free of the ground and on our way to Doha, a hotel room and a measure of tranquility. Once in the States even the Mall and L.L.Bean were enjoyable (I even enjoyed buying clothes) the floors clean, the ground solid, not so the floors in the mall which vibrated as people walked by and started me going. Generally though the stress, trauma and anxiety fell away, returning just occasionally with unexpected footsteps on the floor above in a house. The worst was accidental. In the kitchen, my brother-in-law trying to fix a kettle, fooling around a bit when out of nowhere and joking he shouted at the kettle. I was on my feet, my mind swimming, the cave man returning. The CoP asked me what was wrong but the moment soon departed.
Now I am returning, the CoP went back last week to deal with an application for recovery money and I have had a week on my own, from Bath onwards. It is with a mixture of anticipation and worry that I worry. E is back in town which is a big bonus, it will be a blessing to get back to the routine creation of words and stories. Somehow in all the moving of the past month I have kept writing, rereading, so it has not rested completely and shouldn’t be too bad getting back into the swing of things. Final year, the countdown will slowly begin as I pray for solid ground with reasonable and tolerable seismic activity. It will be five years next year, time perhaps to start reflecting in what has passed, what’s next. For the moment it will be nice to get home, see the beautiful CoP, E and Tikki, and get my socks washed.
One of the many beautiful places I stayed. Pill Creek.
The CoP and I have arrived in Doha. For the first time in over two months the earth is still beneath our feet. As we were waiting in the restaurant at KTM airport there was a minor aftershock, part of the constant sense of movement and vibration. We are in a building – the hotel in the futuristic transit area – that doesn’t look as though it might collapse, feels as though it could, half expecting it might. The plane, as always, was full of mostly men on their way to work in the Gulf. After wheels up and a meal I slept like a baby waking just before we began our descent across the sea and into the brilliance of a million lights burning without interruption, a long, long road lit by street lights stretching out into the desert. Solid ground at last.
This excrescence has gone up over the past couple of weeks on the ground of Kathmandu Base Camp. Is nothing scared? The man who lives opposite us is connected to a famous climbing cafe, and runs a travel business, so will have been hard hit by the quakes. I am guessing he needs the land (that belongs to someone he knows who lives out of country) for a garage to keep his tourist mini-buses and stuff. There is a small office or security building going up as well and it will have a pair of strong gates by the look of the gate post.
The man in the white baseball cap has just been involved in a blazing row with two workers who have walked off the job. He was offering them money and must have short changed them. Only the very young man to the back and right is currently working now. I’ve watched these guys over the past couple of weeks, arc welding in sunglass up on wet steelwork with no gloves, or protective clothing, sliding about in the rain. It’s how it works, dump on the little guy, those who have done the work, taken the physical risk, and short change them.
Woke early and then went back to sleep. Boom. Shake. Alarm. Didn’t even think, running downstairs, holding onto both bannisters, pausing as everything swayed. Ran out behind the CoP and Tikki who were already heading for the front door. I stood outside under the gaze of neighbours from next door in a fetching pair of underpants. After a quake the city sounds as though an enormous flock of birds has landed, a cloud of human voices en masse whispering, excited, sighing and crying, dogs barking and crows, well, crows crowing. Not a big one, a 4.4. It was right under our asses, a veritable kick in the pants, which is why everything happened at once. Immediately, even mildly, my short term memory went, balance became an brief issue. Memories come and go, it takes time, psychologically and physically for the dust to settle. All in all the rewiring of my brain is holding even with MB banging outside, putting back a light fitting that had fallen, and my chair wobbling. Went out for a meeting, shopping and home. I have to carry on. Not let fears and anxieties I have controlled to a large extent reassert their influence. These aftershocks will carry on for months and maybe years.
Serves me right: yesterday I wrote about how much more stable things were.