Monique Nathan – “Nepal stirs people’s hearts and imagination.”
My purpose in life is to do no harm, leave the world a little bit better than I found it, and hopefully raise responsible children to carry on those goals.
When I was eight years old, my family moved abroad and I ended up spending the formative years of my childhood outside of the US. Possibly for this reason, our moving every few years to another foreign country for my husband’s job with the U.S. Department of State feels quite natural. It’s the only life my children know, and thankfully they don’t complain about it. Actually, we all feel truly blessed to see so much of the world. Living in a place like Nepal, you get to know people and absorb the culture with an intensity that does not happen on a short visit. It is a special experience to live this way — to be constantly learning about different cultures, traditions, and philosophies of life. I’m in my late 40’s, and every place I go in the world changes me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. With each year that passes I make new discoveries and realize how much more there is to see and learn. It is a gift for which I feel fortunate.
When we came to Nepal three years ago, I found a plethora of important causes and organizations to which one can donate time and energy. However, I was quickly made aware that for all the legitimate organizations, there are many contemptible ones that prey on the generosity of strangers while exploiting victims (typically vulnerable women and children) in their pursuit of profit. It was, and remains, paramount to me to volunteer my time with organizations that are transparent and reputable. There are many worthy organizations, spearheaded by phenomenal people, in Nepal. In fact, it should not be a surprise that Nepal has a significant roster of CNN Heroes of the Year. I have been fortunate to get to know some of them.
Shortly after arriving in Nepal, I met Pushpa Basnet (CNN Hero of the Year 2012) through a friend who was visiting from the US. My friend had met a young Nepali man in California who was struggling to make a new life for himself in the U.S., working many jobs to make ends meet. He did not have money to spare, but he knew about Pushpa’s work to save disadvantaged children and he wanted to contribute to her cause. He sent $20 with my friend to deliver to her. I was curious to know more about Pushpa’s organization and asked to accompany my friend when he went to deliver the $20 to her. Pushpa was clearly moved by the young man’s generosity. By chance, at that same time a rather wealthy person from Kathmandu stopped in to make a large donation in person. Pushpa was grateful for the large donation, but I could see and feel that the $20.00 from the struggling young man in the US meant just as much to her. That touched my heart. I wanted to get to know her better and help out in whatever way I could.
“It is not just about you living, you have to try to make your world a better place,” said Pushpa. “If I give them good education and everything, tomorrow there will be less crime. They won’t be facing the same thing that their parents are facing. These children have opportunities because they are educated.” (Pushpa Basnet)
Pushpa’s mission is to save children who – through no fault of their own – would otherwise be condemned to the fate of growing up in prison – deprived of an education, and medical care. While she was a university student studying social work at Kathmandu University, she visited the Kathmandu Women’s Prison and discovered the plight of children living there. She immediately started fundraising to create a day care program outside of the prison. Soon after, she established her organization, the Early Childhood Development Centre (ECDC), and over 10 years it grew from a day care program to a residential home. Through many ups and downs (eg. five evictions from rental homes over ten years and a devastating earthquake last year) she finally achieved her dream of building The Butterfly Home, a permanent residence home and school, in February of this year.
Pushpa offers the children a safe home and an education – and a big loving family. Right now she has around 45 children, but there are still many in prison. She built The Butterfly Home to accommodate more children, including those with special needs. Experiencing – even in a small way – part of Pushpa’s journey to build a permanent home for the kids, as well as being welcomed into her big family, has been an enormous gift for myself and my family.
I have two young daughters who are learning by example. Pushpa’s guiding belief is the value of “paying it forward” – in which the beneficiary of a good deed repays to others rather than the original benefactor. I feel that the more time my children spend with Pushpa and her kids, the better. It is important for them to see how good fortune can simply be a coincidence of birth, whereas own actions can make a positive difference in the lives of others. When we started going to Pushpa’s, they would ask her about the children, curious to know how they ended up with their parents in prison. Pushpa always gave them straight answers. It was a little shocking to my girls, but they are old enough to understand and appreciate just how lucky the children who live with Pushpa are. My daughters continue to ask hard questions and I realize that with kids, especially their ages, we must try and be as honest as possible. They know when somebody is prevaricating, and it doesn’t serve any purpose to hide the truth. I try to be straight with them, and highlight the fact that they themselves are indeed quite lucky. I hope they grow up continuing to value service as a part of their lives.
My children do a lot of service through their community-based school, particularly since the earthquake last year. And we visit The Butterfly Home as often as possible – sometimes during the week after school and often on a Saturday, when Pushpa’s children are off school. Pushpa, her staff, and her kids have embraced us, as we have them. The kids call each other didi and dai (sister and brother) and I am Monique-Auntie. Over the main holidays in October and in November (Dashain and Tihar), they asked us to celebrate with them, and the memories of these celebrations will always remain amongst the most special from our time in Nepal.
I also volunteer with One Heart World-Wide (OHW), an NGO with a mission to decrease maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity rates in the developing world. OHW was founded by Arlene Samen, a nurse practitioner in fetal medicine for over 34 years, who in 2004 at the request of the Dalai Lama left her University of Utah clinical practice to dedicate her life to serving vulnerable pregnant women in Tibet, and later on in other remote regions of the world. She has been recognized with many awards, was named a CNN Hero of the Week in 2008.
Following the earthquake, Arlene brought in a number of disaster-relief medical personnel to assist in rural heath clinics in the earthquake-ravaged districts of Nepal. I was privileged to meet many of them, and host a few in our home, while offering local support in Kathmandu on their way in and out. Among the volunteers was Robin Lim, founder of Bumi Sehat International, a network of health clinics offering free prenatal care, birthing services, and medical care in Indonesia, where many families cannot afford such care. Like Pushpa Basnet, Robin is also a CNN Hero of the Year (2011).
Robin introduced me to a young nursing student, Sabita, who worked at the health clinic in Dhading, an area that was badly affected by the earthquake. Sabita was newly married, and most of her husband’s family were horribly injured by the earthquake, in addition to losing their home. Sabita had been a stellar student at school, winning a scholarship to a paramedic program, and then a position working in the local Dhading clinic. When the earthquake struck, she ended up volunteering her time around-the-clock for weeks on end. She accompanied midwives on six hour treks up the mountain to check on pregnant women in far-flung hamlets, prepared reports at the end of long days, and even cleaned the clinic at night when no one else was available. Her dedication and cheery demeanor in the face of tragedy struck Robin Lim. Although Sabita dreamed of becoming a midwife, like Robin and the midwives in the clinic with whom she worked with on a daily basis, there was no question of going to nursing school following the earthquake due to the severe lack of financial resources. Sabita shelved her dream, sharing it with Robin when asked, but presuming it to be unattainable. Nonetheless, Sabita remained dedicated, working tirelessly day and night in the fraught and scary weeks following the earthquake. When Robin stayed with us in Kathmandu she suggested crowdfunding a nursing scholarship for Sabita. Through our combined networks, and Arlene’s and Robin’s renown and fame, we were able to raise funds to send her to enroll Sabita at nursing school here in Kathmandu. It has been an eye-opener and a privilege to be part of Sabita’s journey. I have no doubt that in a few short years she will be saving the lives of vulnerable women and bringing new life into the world — hopefully a safer and better place with each new generation.
In strange circumstance of coincidence, through a family friend, we got to know Patty Breech, Director of Operations of BlinkNow, and its founder Maggie Doyne. We frequently host them and many of the extraordinary fellows who volunteer their time and energy for BlinkNow’s orphanage and the Kopila Valley School in Surkhet, western Nepal. Last November, Patty, Maggie, and the school’s co-founder, Tope Malla, came and stayed at our home with two scholarship students who are close in age to my two daughters. Srijana and Jharana are excellent students who were about to spend three months studying in the US on scholarship. Seeing the bond that developed in a couple of short days – and hearing the constant giggles – between the four girls was touching and reminded us that no matter how different our life circumstances may be, little girls (and arguably all of us) have more in common than not.
In that same period of time, Maggie was named a top ten finalist for 2015 CNN Hero of the Year. Knowing her and seeing and feeling the excitement of Nepalis about her nomination made it an exhilarating time. On one of her visits to Kathmandu last November, I accompanied Maggie to meet both Pushpa Basnet and Anuradha Koirala of Maiti Nepal – a formidable fighter against sex trafficking, and yet another CNN Hero of the Year (2010). Anuradha Koirala is a name that evokes awe and adulation in Nepal. Her organization has helped rescue and rehabilitate over 12,000 women and children. It was beautiful to see Pushpa and Anuradha embrace Maggie and talk about their personal experiences as CNN Heroes and life afterwards. As you can tell, Nepal has a lot of CNN Heroes championing the important causes of maternal health, and women’s and children’s welfare.
There are a number of big organizations doing important work in Nepal. Save the Children is one, but personally, I like to support smaller causes because they did not get much from the big influx of money that came after the earthquake. These are organizations that don’t have enormous overheads like some of the big international organizations. The ones I have already named — Pushpa Basnet’s ECDC/Butterfly Home, One Heart World-Wide, and BlinkNow — are all doing important work. And there are many more, including organizations fighting the trafficking of children, which is another cause very dear to my heart. Next Generation Nepal in Kathmandu is an organization that combats orphan trafficking and educates about the differences between ethical volunteering and “voluntourism”. I share information on this topic constantly, because unfortunately orphan trafficking is very big business in Nepal. Simply put, voluntourism contributes to the plight of trafficked children. And after the earthquake last year, there was enormous concern that the number of trafficked children would increase. Happily the government responded quickly to the potential crisis. In coordination with organizations, such as Next Generation Nepal, protective measures were established in the areas worst affected by the earthquake where children were particularly vulnerable to being trafficked.
Nepal still needs help after the 2015 earthquake. Much of the successful work that you have seen in post-earthquake Nepal has been done by private individuals and small organizations. It’s impressive to see what they’ve accomplished. There have been, and continue to be, many worthy crowdfunding campaigns designed to provide direct relief to people who are otherwise not likely to receive anything. In the case of the post-2015 earthquake situation in Nepal, I believe that crowdfunding and private initiatives can actually make a bigger and more direct impact on average citizens than donations to larger organizations, who face logistical difficulties in implementing assistance.
The 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and subsequent aftershocks were devastating. I still live with a lot of fear. It’s changing over time though. I always fear for my children’s safety, but I think that’s a typical parental fear. I’m starting to look at the experience of surviving the earthquake differently now, and I accept that what will happen will happen. We can only do so much to be responsible and we try our best to stay safe, but without going crazy about it. I actually think the earthquake helped me work through some irrational fears.
This sounds crazy, especially living in Nepal, but I do not “do” yoga regularly. I would love to go to yoga class everyday and experience the calm and inner peace that a good yoga session brings. However, the chaos of everyday life (kids, schedules, etc.) regularly gets in the way. I have tried though! Two years ago, I went for a two-day yoga and meditation retreat to a nearby Buddhist monastery, and I got a call almost immediately from my husband telling me that one of our daughters was seriously ill. I left and I still have to make it back to finish my retreat. Instead, I try to practice yoga on an emotional level in my daily life — through positive thought, helping others, and trying to accept karma.
I try not to generalize about people, but I think that one of the beauties of Nepal is its people. There are wonderful people to be found everywhere, but there’s something about Nepal in particular that is magical. Nepal stirs people’s hearts and imagination. Anyone who has lived here cannot help leaving a little piece of their heart when they depart.
PLEASE NOTE: All views expressed here are my own, and not those of the people or organizations to whom I refer within the interview.
Interview by Dawn Morningstar and Hung Tran with Monique Kovacs Nathan in Kathmandu, Nepal.
You can find the organizations that Monique supports here:
Photo Credit: Monique Nathan, Luminarya & The Yoga Blog