14 June, 2004

Oliver Twist Finds a New Home

Nation Weekly, June 14-June 20, 2004

Oliver Twist Finds A New Home
A group of orphans rescued from an abusive orphanage finally see better days. For residents of the Light for Nation children’s home, this Dickensenian scenario was not just stories out of a 19th century novel, but daily reality until now
BY SUSHMA JOSHI

What happens when a children’s home becomes a place of abuse, where children get no food to eat and are beaten and kept in a state of acute fear? For residents of the Light for Nation children’s home, this Dickensenian scenario was not just stories out of a 19th century novel, but daily reality. “K.B. Khadga’s( Light for Nation’s founder) wife beat me and shut me in the bathroom,” says Aarati Thapa, pointing to a scar on the side of her face. Aarati, a bouncy little girl in a pink frock, insists she is 10 but looks about seven. She is one of the many children now rescued from the orphanage.

Salvation for the children at Light for Nation like Arati came in the form of nine staff members, who staged a wholescale walkout from the orphanage. Says Maiya Devi Pathak, who eventually started a new organization called Light for Nepal (not to be confused with Light for Nation) which now takes care of 35 children, “I would go from door to door to get donations, and then I would watch the chairman’s family as they ate all the food. The children would get no meat or milk. After a while, I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to start a better institution.”

Pathak has a personal reason for starting an abuse-free home for children: her own children were raised in Bal Mandir, which she says did a good job. Pathak, who is epileptic, did not have access to medication in her twenties, and fell into the fire while living in her village. It took two years of hospital-stay and doctors to reconstruct her face. Her children, during this time, grew up in Bal Mandir.

Ram Prasad Pandey, 10, another rescued child, says Khadga’s wife told him that if he left their home, the new folks would cut his heart out and sell it in a foreign country. Does he believe his new caretakers would do that? The question elicits a look of fear, as if the child doubts his own knowledge. But he is very definite when asked if he would like to return to his old orphanage. “No,” he says promptly. “I don’t like it there. They don’t feed us there.”

Food deprivation, say the children, was the norm at Khadga’s Light for Nation. Silas Tamang, who also claims he’s 10, says: “They only fed us once a day; chiura and sometimes rice. They would eat the meat, and only give us the bones.” The children, who were not sent to school, were made to wash the dishes and do the laundry. They were also made to take care of chairman Khadga’s four sons, including diaper changes for the infant. “If his son beat us, he would just beat us again,” says Silas. The chairman’s four sons, Peter, Paul, David and Jakob, received special treatment.

“The chairman even married his 13-year-old son to a 15-year-old orphan girl from the home,” says Yograj Pandey, who also left the orphanage after seeing the abuse. Pandey, the 29-year-old general secretary of the new home, has two gold ear-studs and sunglasses worthy of a rock star. But his commitment to the children is clear. “I can’t stay in my apartment even though I have my BBS Third Year exams,” he says. “I have to come here and be with the children. When they go away to school, it feels very quiet and empty.”

After the walkout, a showdown occurred. Ramila Gurung, 13, decided to run away from the Light of Nation to join her friends at Pathak’s apartment, where 10 children who had left with their caretakers were being housed. K.B. Khadga lodged a complaint with the police, saying Yograj Pandey had stolen his children. “You keep on stealing children from that home. If you need children, we can bring you truckloads from the street,” the police inspector reportedly said to Yograj, who was taken away in a van.

“The inspector didn’t understand that we cared about these children, and they had a bond with us. I told him that we would return the children, if they wanted to go. They started to cry and began to tell their stories, and finally the police gave us full guardianship,” says Yograj, whose ordeal opened up one good networking opportunity: the police, seeing their good work, now bring rice and vegetables for the children.

Pathak’s Light for Nepal, housed in a five storey building close to the green forest of Raniban, is now registered as an NGO with the Social Service Welfare Council. A busy hum of children playing greets visitors at the gate. The children say “Namaste!” and then dash off for their “stick game.” The rooms, stacked with double-decker beds, have the relaxed feel of a home, rather than an institution. A dresser in each room features personal photographs. Salman Khan rubs shoulders with photographs of the children’s families, many of whom still live in Dhading and Nuwakot. “They don’t know their past, or their parents. This is their home. They’re happy here. They might be unhappier if they knew their past,” says Narad Regmi, 30, a newly hired teacher who’s been in the home for only a week.

The school patches together funding from Nepali donors and international friends. Bruce Moore, an Australian donor who originally used to fund Khadga’s Light for Nation, now funds the new institution. He pays the rent for the new five-storey building, but the board remains worried that they may have to shift to a smaller place if he decides to discontinue his funding. Puruswattam Sitaula, the treasurer, says: “It’s a constant battle to keep the orphanage afloat. You can’t allow children to go hungry.” Sitaula’s job includes cajoling shop-keepers for credit when funds are low.

The home has been successful in garnering community support: local donors bring by rice, and vegetables that can be picked up for free from the wholesalers at Kalimati, mentions Sitaula. Even the Water Department co-operates by bringing by free tankers of water. Most importantly, BN Sharma, the vice-chairman of PABSON, has arranged to school all 35 children for free at CPS Godavari School. “We only have to pay the driver’s salary. They even send us a bus,” says Pandey.

Pathak says she would eventually like to have a building and a school which can house up to a 1,000 children. For the moment, however, they cannot add any more children due to lack of funding, despite requests.

Khadga’s Light for Nation, which lost its status as a social service organization after CDO Kirtibahadur Chand deemed it was unsuitable for taking care of children, has shifted to another location. Khadga could not be reached for comment either. Light for Nation continues to operate outside of official scrutiny. The organization sustains itself on funds sent by Christian donors from abroad, and has added more children.

Says Deepak Sapkota of the Central Child Welfare Board, “It’s not clear whose role it is to follow up on such cases. But when we hear of these cases, we do our best to follow it up with the Central District Office.”

The Child Welfare Board, along with UNICEF and ILO, is working to create minimum standards and guidelines for care-giving organizations that work with children. “There’s a Children Act, but there is no provision for law enforcement, and no capacity to implement them,” says Alexander Kruger of UNICEF. When a case is brought to the police, they will favor the management over the children, he says. “The situation is pretty grim.”

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