In chaotic Nepal, beauty can be a curse
Rosemarie Briggs/Submitted photo
Special to the News
Janaki is too pretty. Her black-lashed eyes dominate a heart-shaped face. She exudes such sweetness. Janaki was 5 or 6 when she first came to the orphanage in Lumbini, Nepal. She looked up at me with those massive eyes and my heart constricted. How could we possibly protect her? She had so many strikes against her: She was young, an orphan, a girl.
On top of all this, Janaki would have to live with the danger of her beauty. Her orphan brothers and sisters loved her and cared for her and the years passed. Janaki’s sweetness remained and her beauty began to grow into that of a young woman.
They were hard years for our kids, filled with civil unrest.
Mina, one of Janaki’s older orphan sisters, began to think beyond what had ever been imagined by most of the girls. She wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to be independent. We supported Mina’s education through years of turmoil and hardship and she worked diligently.
Then, in April of 2015, a devastating earthquake rocked Nepal. Terror gripped my and my mother’s hearts as we burned up the email and phone lines, trying to locate our orphans. I recall our intense gratitude when we realized they were all okay. Yes, some were living under plastic on the street, but they were all alive. I’d only been back from Nepal two weeks when the earthquake struck. I felt guilty for not being with “my kids” but we worked over the distance and got things straightened out. Our kids also inspired us with their resourcefulness, optimism and generosity towards others.
As our kids and the nation of Nepal struggled to put their lives back together, civil unrest broke out again as did disputes between Nepal and India. There was violence and death. Food and fuel shortages were severe. People struggled to gather enough twigs to cook whatever food they managed to acquire. Often cooking fuel was simply unavailable. We worked to make sure our kids had enough to eat and continued their education.
Last year, against the wishes of family and friends, I insisted that I had to enter this chaos that was Nepal. At the India-Nepal border, I met a tourist bus that had turned back to India in fear of the violence. At Nepali immigration I greeted the border guards I’ve come to know over the years and began the visa paperwork. When the officials were finished my paperwork and had stamped my passport, they set my passport out of reach and sat down.
“Rose, you can’t go to Lumbini. It’s too dangerous,” the guard insisted.
They read the stubborn set of my jaw and nodded.
“Give us the numbers of your friends in Lumbini.”
I shook my head. My dear friend Moti Lal knew I would arrive today. He had insisted I phone him at the border so he could pick me up on his motorbike but I had no intention of doing that. I could walk or take a bicycle rickshaw the 25 kilometres.
Out of kindness, the guards made my decision easy. No phone number, no passport.
I passed the paper over and they dialed Moti’s number.
We made it past the piles of burning tires and and groups of agitators armed with clubs. We were lucky. It was dinner time and they were too hungry to bother with a couple people breaking the motorized vehicle ban.
But our children live with fear and uncertainty as a constant companion. They have never known a peaceful Nepal. They have never known what absolute safety feels like.
Visiting our school, I was relieved to see that cracks from the earthquake were superficial. Just the plaster was damaged. I visited libraries we’d established and met with teachers and headmasters.
On one very special day I met with Mina. After four years of hard study, Mina had blossomed into a beautiful, self-confident woman with a nursing degree. This would be our celebration dinner. With her, Mina brought two of our other girls, one who is a teacher and another, Sushila, who was inspired to become a nurse and wanted to tell me. Janaki remained at the orphanage.
A few months ago, 15-year-old Janaki went to the village of her birth to visit relatives. It is not hard to imagine the scenario. A young orphan with the face of an angel and a demeanor to match walked into the village. Soon marriage proposals were flying. Against Janaki’s wishes, her relatives began planning her wedding. In panic, Janaki fled to the orphanage, and wrote us, begging for help. She had always wanted to study higher than grade 10 but now the goal had become a mission to survive. Mina had inspired Sushila, and given her direction. Now Mina inspired panic-stricken Janaki.
Education is Janaki’s lifeline to freedom, choice and independence. With education her angelic face need not be a burden that will force her into an unwanted marriage.
Since I returned to Canada last spring, civil unrest has continued to escalate in Nepal. Sometimes we cannot contact our kids because they are scared to leave their house and towns are closed. But through all of this, they continue to study. They continue to work to create meaningful lives. Mina makes each day better for those around her. She works full time at a local hospital. Sushila is awaiting nursing-college entrance. Janaki is in the orphanage and finishing high school. Her dream of being a nurse is coming closer to being a reality.
Hands of Hope is a Yukon-based organization that helps poor children and adults in India and Nepal develop independence and self-reliance. All donations go to our projects. We pay all our expenses. For more information visit hands-of-hope.ca.