Nepal's Street Children Find a Place to Call Home Sweet Home

California-based group offers a warm bed, help with homework, and a sense of family.

The bustling streets of Kathmandu's Thamel district are like a Disneyland for world wanderers. Bicycle rickshaws vie with money changers, and merchants hawk everything from exotic paper goods to backpacking equipment.

But for many poor and homeless children in Nepal, the narrow streets are far less inviting. They vie with each other for tourist rupees. Older children mark out territory and beat the younger ones. Gang leaders push opium. And merchants offer work and then refuse to pay.

At any given time, about a thousand children live on the streets of Kathmandu. More than a million youngsters in Nepal are working in high-risk jobs such as the sex trade, mines, stone quarries, and the carpet industry. About 4,000 to 5,000 young girls are annually sold to middlemen who ferry them to the brothels of Bombay. The more fortunate kids are sold as indentured servants.

For some private organizations on a mission to attack these problems, Nepal is also a place where a little effort can make a lot of difference.

UNICEF, Plan International, and Save the Children all try to provide the means to educate children in rural areas where school attendance beyond the primary years is seen as a waste when help is needed in the fields. The average annual income in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, is less than $200. Life expectancy for the country's 22 million people is 55 years; literacy hovers at 35 percent.

Many of the children who end up in Kathmandu, whether running from abusive relatives or escaping servitude, find refuge in local programs that offer them a chance to make their lives right. One such refuge is J House.

Started in 1990 by two Americans, J House is a home for boys with unthinkable early life experiences.

Off the street, on to college

Rajendra, one of the first children raised in the home, recalls a grueling life on the street after fleeing his village and an abusive stepmother. But after six years at J House, he's now heading for an art college in Kathmandu with Aistrope for a last name - a name he took from Allan Aistrope, one of the founders of the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation (NYOF), based in Sausalito, Calif. The NYOF owns and funds J House and nearby K House (for girls), both located in a neighborhood away from the busier streets.

Mr. Aistrope operates the houses with Olga Murray, a lawyer from California he met in Nepal while he was teaching boys at the Paropakar Orphanage and she was on a trek. "Those were the pioneer days," he says, "no e-mail, no fax, couldn't even phone without a two-hour wait. But things fell into place, and so easily."

"When I saw that for the price of taking a couple of friends out for dinner in San Francisco, I could send a child to college for a year, there was no question," says Ms. Murray. "If a child needs [medical attention] and $1,000 to get it, I am not going to let $1,000 stand between me and a child's life. In Nepal, you can get a handle on these problems. You can make a dent and the government does not interfere."

Today, 46 children live in J and K Houses. There is Nirmala, 16, who is blind, and now reads and writes Braille in Nepali and English. Sushma bears the scars of acid that her father threw onto her and her mother. Maiti was left on the K House doorstep when she was 9. She had been in a children's hospital, parentless, deposited by relatives for whom she worked as a servant. Today, she laughs, loves to hug, and says in her limited English, "Thanks for remembering me," when a visitor calls her name.

In all, there are 22 girls at K House who care for each other and call each other didi or sister.

J House is always in a swarm of activity. Santosh Basnet challenges the others for a basketball game, although his left arm was amputated after he was hit by a truck. The teen is a team squad leader and favorite in the national school championships. He came to J House five years ago when "his time was almost finished," as he describes it "and my family could not afford to send me to school."

Another Santosh living in the house is nine years old and had been living in prison with his father who is serving a 10-year term. In Nepal, children who have nowhere to go must live with their incarcerated parent in jail, sharing their parent's sleeping cot and meager food until they are 12 years old.

All the amenities

In each house, the children are cared for by a devoted Nepalese couple, and there is plenty of food, although the menu rarely changes from bean sauce and rice. After dinner, children dance to the radio, color, do homework or gather to watch TV. Bunk beds line the bedrooms with personal trunks stored underneath, all items shared willingly. The concrete J House building has three floors, with three bathrooms and bedrooms, and a terrace.

Absent are sounds of anger and whining. At about 18, children prepare to leave. Scholarships are provided, parceled from a thin budget fund-raised in the United States. Leaving is no easy feat for children who have come to know each other as family. Under the tutelage of J House, and role model Aistrope, Rajendra finished high school and is going to college on a scholarship from NYOF. He knows he must soon leave the house, but for now he delights in his water colors and helping the younger children.

"The most difficult thing is choosing the children we help" and turning others down, says Murray. "You can really change somebody's life. You have to do this everyday."

Choosing who to help

Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN) was started in 1989 with contributions from Plan International and Save the Children, whose efforts usually focus on financial sponsorship of children in their families.

CWIN started a drop-in center in Kathmandu, however, to give children without families a place to get a bath, a meal, and medical care between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. For organizations like NYOF, the center is the primary way of finding the children they help. Rajendra met Murray and Aistrope this way.

The drop-in center "is the first place children will go," says CWIN program coordinator Madhav Pradhan. "At first it was hard to get children to come. When we first opened the bedroom area, we'd put children in the bed and later we would find them under the bed. They were not used to this. It was difficult to keep children here. They always wanted to go back to the street. Now all the kids know about this place, and if a new child is spotted on the street he is immediately taken here."

Aistrope and Murray have managed to raise a budget of about $200,000 a year that supports nearly 400 children in school and boarding programs, scholarship funds, a medical clinic and recovery room at CWIN, plus trips between the US and Nepal for sick children as needed.

Although they face financial hurdles, Murray and Aistrope stretch what they do have, often calling on friends to house children while they are in the US or spending days bargaining in bazaars looking for the best deals on supplies. One US-based friend of Aistrope who leads tours to Nepal requires all clients to bring a duffel bag filled with clothes and supplies for the children.

"We find solutions child by child and it's a constant challenge," says Aistrope. "To get hope, you have to create it. It's a cycle of frustration, challenge, and reward."

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