Note: Read all the way to the end for details on how I aim to donate $1,000 to help fight child trafficking in Nepal, and you how you can help out.
It was a Thursday morning in July when I found myself sitting on the floor in a front room, back against the wall, enjoying a breakfast of rice and lentils with twenty or so Nepalese kids. Jack and Emily, volunteers from Ireland, had brought me along for a visit.
The house was one of five belonging to the Umbrella Foundation. Two of them were for girls, three for boys. When I’d first walked in a half hour earlier, all the boys were excitedly doing homework in another room. Then they excitedly began tidying that room. After breakfast they excitedly got ready for school, between bouts of breakdancing and kick-ball. All the while they exchanged big smiles and wide-eyed glances.
It was an impossible place to frown.
I chatted with more of the volunteers as we walked the kids the half hour to school, through winding alleyways, across busy streets, and past urban rice fields. I’d also met with the two chaps who run the organization a couple of days earlier, spoke at length with them both. Here’s what I learned from those conversations.
People often call the many children’s homes in Kathmandu “orphanages,” but that’s misleading. Because very few of the kids living in such homes are actually orphans. The vast majority of them have parents alive and well. They just don’t know where they are exactly.
You see, there’s this huge child trafficking problem in Nepal. The usual racket goes like this…
A man will arrive in a remote mountain village. Oftentimes he’ll be someone known to the villagers, a fellow Nepali, someone they believe they can trust. Times are tough for young parents in the mountains, so this man will make them a tempting offer. “Let me take your children away to the city,” he’ll say. “I’ll put them in a good school. They’ll get a good education and return to you as responsible young men and women, better able to make a comfortable life for themselves and for you.”
“And because my offer is so generous,” the man will say, “I will of course require compensation.”
Usually the parents will gratefully accept such an offer and scrounge together their life savings to pay the man. They’ll sell land and livestock if they have to. Then they say tearful goodbyes to their children, most of whom are still shy of their tenth birthday, and send them off following the generous man along the steep mountain trails.
What happens next ain’t pretty. The children are indeed brought to the big sprawl of Kathmandu, but none of them are put in schools. Girls old enough to fetch a price are trafficked into India and sold into brothels, never to return.
The rest of the kids are sold to “orphanages” in the city. And not the good kind. These shady setups usually exist for the sole purpose of making money. The kids are sent out begging on the streets, and then their earnings taken from them when they return. Tourists are invited in to visit. They see the poor conditions the children live in and are encouraged to leave a donation: Money, toys, fresh clothes.
But as soon as visiting hours are over, the gifts are taken away from the children. It’s better they look shabby and joyless; they sucker in more donations that way.
The Umbrella Foundation
The Umbrella Foundation is one of too few organizations in Nepal trying to make things right and actually succeeding. They’ve rescued dozens of kids from the shady orphanages and made good on the empty promises of the traffickers. They give the children a clean and safe place to live and pay for their education. Then, most importantly, they send them back home.
Or at least they try to. Oftentimes they’re given no clue as to who a child’s parents are or where they might be. Search parties are sent out to the mountains, going village to village along the steep trails, showing photos of the lost children in the hopes that someone will recognize a face and lead them to kin. It’s a slow, tedious and expensive process.
Of course there’s elation when such efforts do pay off and a child is reunited with family. But that’s not the end of the story either. As explained to me by both Mac and Shane, the two Irish lads running the Umbrella Foundation in Kathmandu, there’s the danger that other villagers will see the neighbors’ kids returning healthy and educated, and thus believe it a good idea to send their kids off with the next strange man who offers to take them. “After all,” they’re likely to think, “everything turned out as promised for the Murphys next door.”
To prevent this, the heroes reuniting the families have to deliver a dose of tough love and let the parents know that it was very wrong to send their children away in the first place. Indeed, they need to make the parents feel ashamed of their actions, make them understand just how rare it is for a child to emerge unscathed from such an ordeal.
So, with all the above in mind…
A Christmas gift for the lost children of Nepal
Since Christmas is upon us and I’ve been doing pretty well financially of late, I’ve decided to try and send a nice donation to the Umbrella Foundation. Hoping you can help out as well.
Here’s the deal: Donate any amount you like via this page at Umbrella’s website, then forward me along your email receipt (my email is email@example.com), and I’ll go ahead and match your donation.
I’ll keep matching until I reach $1,000 myself, so if all goes well we could end up raising $2,000 together. Hoo-rah! Nothing like helping good, honest people do more good, honest work.
If you’d rather not donate, no worries. Consider buying the book Little Princes from here. It’s a great read (last-minute Christmas gift?) and a large portion of the proceeds go towards helping victims of child trafficking in Nepal.
And for the really adventurous among you, you might want to consider spending a summer volunteering with the Umbrella Foundation. As mentioned, I met with several people involved with that organization and can vouch for their authenticity and general legendariness.
Thanks in advance for any help!
DEC 25 UPDATE: Massive thanks to everyone who contributed to the campaign. I added my $1k to the pile yesterday, bringing the total amount raised to $2,534. Really delighted we were able to do this