Written by Yaiza Morales
As my plane flew over the all mighty Himalayas, I was mesmerized by their power. Enthralled by the endless rugged peaks below me, I looked forward to my arrival in Nepal, a country famous for its spiritual wealth and natural beauty. Bright smiles and a colorful culture welcomed me with a warm “Namaste,” and my first few days were filled with fascination and excitement.
It wasn’t long before I began to notice the darkness that hung over the streets of Kathmandu, like a gray cloud. Each day I discovered its extreme poverty, and I tried holding back my tears as I witnessed the injustice that lurked in every corner. Street children begging tourists for money seemed to multiply by the minute, and my impression of this natural haven was soon overpowered by the images of the homeless children that walked past me day by day. Barefoot and covered in grime, these children stood before me crying out for help. I noticed how these disturbing scenes first shocked a few spectators, but then became a nuisance they would dodge and ignore. It was heart wrenching. I decided I would not look the other way. Something had to be done. Giving these children a little food or money wouldn’t be enough.
I wondered how these children were allowed to roam the streets alone and sleep on cold sidewalks. Where were their parents? Did they have any family at all? What was the government doing to protect them? What about the community? It’s as if society had given up on them. They were the forgotten ones. Invisible. Unfortunately, this was not the first time in my life that I had seen this lack of protection for children’s rights. My travels in India and Cambodia had scarred me long ago, and it was those children who inspired me to initiate The One Chance Project. If we as adults, don’t take responsibility for helping the children of our world, who will? This is the cruel reality in many developing countries and The One Chance Project was committed to making a difference in the life of at least one street child in Nepal.
Our journey to help the street children of Nepal began one cold autumn night in Pokhara. As Joerie and I strolled down the sidewalk, we noticed a piece of plastic on the floor that seemed to shiver like a leaf. A small boy of about 6 years old lay underneath it. His bed was a cardboard box, and the piece of plastic was his blanket for the night. People walked past him and looked away. As if looking the other way would make it all disappear. Maybe they thought, “If I don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist.” Although in my heart I wanted to carry the little boy in my arms and take him with me, I knew that legally, this was not a smart idea. So, we bought him a warm and colorful fleece blanket, a bottle of water, and a box of cookies. As I removed the piece of plastic, I covered him with the warm blanket and placed the snacks beside him. He opened his eyes, looked at me and smiled, as he snuggled into the blanket. I will never forget that moment; those eyes, that smile, that face. The next day we’d look for him and find a way of getting him to a safe place. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a long and uphill battle.
The next day, we walked endlessly and asked everyone in sight if they had seen the little boy. No one seemed to know. He was nowhere to be found. Invisible. That night, as we continued our search, we walked down a dark alley, and to my surprise I recognized the vibrant colors of the fleece blanket we had purchased for the little boy the previous night. We found him!
As I approached the boy, I noticed he was not alone. Two older boys accompanied him. I greeted them with a smile, which they returned as I sat down on the icy pavement beside them. Rakesh, 14 years old, was the oldest in the group. He wore what used to be a white shirt, which was now torn and gray, pants that were about three sizes too small, and no shoes. He seemed to be the leader of the pack, and it was obvious that he’d been on the streets for a long time. Rakesh had big bright brown eyes that emanated sensibility and kindness. He trembled as he spoke his few words of broken English to communicate with us. Manoj, was 11, and he wore oversized clothes that hung over his emaciated body. He seemed more apprehensive and guarded than the other two. The look on his face and his body language seemed to yell out, “I don’t trust you!” The little boy we had been looking for was called Radish, and he was only 6 years old, just as I had thought. I will always remember Radish’s sweet smile and beautiful eyes that gleamed with vivacious energy. He was wrapped in the blanket and his little face was encrusted with dirt. Radish was hungry not only for food, but for love. As soon as I sat down, he leaned on me with playful gestures. He crawled into my lap and melted my heart.
Rakesh explained that they were all brothers, who became orphans after their parents had died in a car accident. Although something made me doubt their story, this was not my biggest concern at the time. My goal was to gain their trust, so I could help them get off the streets and into a safe shelter. I listened closely as Rakesh explained how he and Manoj worked rowing boats on Phewa Lake during the day, which is not only illegal, but also extremely dangerous. Child labor, although forbidden in Nepal, is very common and can be witnessed throughout the country. Radish was too young to work, so he begged during the day, and at night they would usually meet in this same alley, where they would sometimes sleep together. We bought them dinner, water, and some biscuits for breakfast the next morning. I assured them that we’d be back the next night with dinner. It was all part of my plan. I’d work on finding organizations and shelters that could take the boys in, and then find a way of getting them there safely. The next day was spent making endless phone calls, researching, sending emails, and seeking options. Who could help me? Which shelters were trustworthy? Who would take these boys in? How would I even get them there? I didn’t know anyone in Nepal, and I began to think that I was in over my head.
I was able to contact CWIN, an organization that serves to protect children’s rights in Nepal. They agreed to help me out, but explained that the boys had the power of choice. This meant that if the boys did not accept our help, we could not take them to the CWIN shelter. I was worried and could not understand how young children were actually allowed to make such a decision. Did the law not protect them? To my dismay, there were Nepalese laws and regulations in place, but they were not enforced. Therefore, the boys could actually refuse our help and choose to stay on the streets if they wanted to.
We arranged a meeting with a social worker named Songkor from CWIN. He met us at our hotel, and soon we were on our way to see the boys with pizzas, french fries, and a rescue plan. Instead of three boys, now there were six! As they gobbled down the food, I secretly prayed for them to accept our help. Then, it was the moment of truth. Songkor spoke to the children and while the three new boys took off, our boys agreed to go to the shelter!
In a blink of an eye Joerie and I were in a taxi on our way to CWIN with Rakesh, Manoj, and Radish! I will always remember the feeling of excitement and relief, as I cuddled the boys in the back seat of the taxi. Radish sat on my lap and lovingly caressed my face. Rakesh put his arm around me and sang a happy melody. Manoj had his head out the window like a puppy enjoying the breeze against his face. I would have given anything for that moment to last more than what it did.
After spending the night at CWIN, the social workers interviewed the boys to find out their real stories and family situations. We learned that they were not brothers and that they each had families, with heartbreaking stories of abuse and alcoholism. Songkor had already explained that many times street children are not orphans. Instead, they are runaways, who because of problematic situations in their families, are forced to leave their homes. Poverty and lack of education are the undeniable causes of this social tragedy. The majority of parents in Nepal struggle to make ends meet and are unable to feed their children or send them to school. This is how so many kids end up living in the streets, begging for money, and partaking in child labor. It’s the only way they can survive. In many cases the parents’ financial stress leads to alcoholism and causes additional problems, which in the end, makes the children escape too. We weren’t surprised to hear that the boys were not related, or that they all had parents and families, but we knew this would complicate things.
According to the Nepalese law, the children had to be placed with their parents. As you can imagine, having run away from home, this is something the boys did not want. CWIN’s social workers explained that they would contact the families, investigate, and then depending on the situation they would have to make one of two decisions: either return them home, or place them in a long-term shelter for street children.
We kept our faith and bought them clothing for what we thought would be their fresh new start at life. Thanks to kindness of our OCP supporters, we were able to purchase a whole new wardrobe for the boys that included: sweaters, shirts, pants, underwear, and socks. Their faces lit up when they saw us return with bags full of colorful new outfits! Our excitement quickly turned into disappointment when we found out that Manoj escaped the center the following day. It wasn’t long before Rakesh and Radish joined him. All three boys were back on the streets, and our hearts were broken. We armed ourselves with faith and optimism, hoping the second time would be more successful.
It took us two days before we found Rakesh and Manoj again, and we recognized them thanks to the clothes we had bought them a few days earlier. Three new boys were with them, but Radish was missing. The newcomers’ names were Sameer (age 11), Razon (age 15), and Dinesh (age 5). They too had parents and had run away from home for similar reasons. I had Radish in the back of my mind, and when the boys explained that he had gone back home, I was dubious. Something told me I’d see him again, but for now I had a new plan in mind for these boys. We would try taking all of them to a shelter called The Protection and Rehabilitation Center for Street Children in Pokhara. This shelter had great reviews and I had already spoken to the Director, Rudras Thapas, who would be expecting us the following morning. Luckily, the five boys agreed to come with us to this new center. Our fingers were crossed!
This taxi experience was completely different from our previous one. An intense lice removal session spontaneously took place in the back seat. As I removed lice from the older kids, they helped me pick the lice off the younger ones. It was like a monkey tick removing scene from a National Geographic Magazine. Their poor little heads were infested with these tiny blood suckers, and I tried my best to take them all out. Sadly, I knew that if I didn’t do it, nobody else would.
As we arrived at the shelter, for some reason the boys refused to go inside. They wanted nothing to do with this shelter and asked us to take them back to CWIN. We couldn’t make sense of it. The Protection and Rehabilitation Center for Street Children in Pokhara seemed like a very special place where children were really cared for and loved. You could feel the peaceful and amorous energy in the air. Although our boys did not want to stay here, Joerie and I returned to this center a few days later, in order to develop a project to support their efforts. A generous donation from an OCP friend allowed us to supply this organization with a month’s worth of food and cooking gas. During that visit, Mr. Thapas would explain why the five boys had not wanted to stay at his center that day. They had all been there before, and it had not been a positive experience. At the time we were oblivious, but these boys had no intentions of staying at any shelter at all.
Wanting to please the boys, we opted for taking them to the CWIN shelter again. The second round at CWIN was also short-lived, as the following day all the boys had vanished, except for one…Sameer. We had high hopes for him and made sure to visit him constantly, buy him clothes, and give him words of motivation so that he would continue to receive help. He lasted about ten days at the CWIN shelter, and when he escaped too, my hope began to dwindle for the first time. It was our last day in Pokhara, and my heart ached for the boys. We had tried everything in our power to help them get off the streets, and we had failed. I thought of the cold winter nights that approached. My mind wandered constantly, and I envisioned the boys sleeping on the streets, alone. I worried for their safety and for their lives.
Our heads hung low as we walked back to our hotel, feeling defeated on our last night. Suddenly, my instincts propelled me into action, and my eyes shot across the road. I thought I recognized a little boy walking on the other side of the street. He was about the same size as Radish, but he was walking hand in hand with a much younger child, which threw me off. Yet a little voice inside my head pushed me to run across the street and yell: “Radish?!” The little boy turned around, grinned, and ran into my arms! I had found him…again! I couldn’t believe it! As I carried him in my arms, I didn’t want to let go. I had so many questions. Where had he been all this time? Was he ok? Was he hungry? Who was the little child that was accompanying him? Where were the rest of the boys? A kind person on the street translated for us. Radish had gone back home after he had run away from CWIN, and the little child was his 3 year-old sister! He had taken her from their home to join him on the streets. My heart sank as I tried to explain that the streets were no place for a child, that it was dangerous, and that both their lives were at risk. I asked him to let me help him once again. His little sister was fragile and confused. Her face was covered in dirt, grease, and red tikka. It was freezing, and she merely wore a pair of ripped shorts with a sleeveless shirt. She was shaking, and the disoriented look on her face made me tear up. Radish’s face changed. He no longer wanted our help. His mood changed drastically and he stormed away in anger, dragging his little sister by the arm. I was stunned and hurt by his behavior, but I didn’t let my emotions get the best of me. I had to be strong. We noticed he was following us, and in a matter of minutes, the entire group of boys we had tried to help with open hearts surrounded us. Rakesh, Manoj, Razon, Sameer, Dinesh, Radish, and his little sister sat around us in a circle on the steps of a restaurant. It was a painful sight. What to do? I tried my best to persuade them into coming with us once more. This time it didn’t work. They rejected our offer and there was nothing we could do. With tears in our eyes, we watched as they walked away. They were gone.
Helping these street children in Nepal was like swimming against the tide, only to end up washed up on the shore. Would I do it all over again? Yes, in a heartbeat. Perhaps this story doesn’t have the happy ending we all would have hoped for, but in my heart I know it’s not over. These boys were not invisible to us. We saw them as what they truly are: sweet children, who have been robbed of their childhood and innocence at no fault of their own. They are human beings with beautiful souls, who just need to be loved. They deserve that chance, and I pray that one day we can return to Nepal and finish what we started.