She might no longer have the physical stamina to trek through Nepal’s villages. But after two decades of rescuing Nepali children from the clutches of deprivation, bondage and a future without opportunity, Olga Murray, 84, still keeps herself busy coming up with new and better projects to change the lives of Nepali children by ensuring them good education without financially burdening their poverty-stricken parents.
Today, the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, Murray’s non-profit charity, is actively involved in freeing Kamlari indentured laborers and educating them, housing children who have never known safety and security, bringing nutrition to the malnourished among them, and giving away scholarships.
LAWYER FROM SAN FRANSISCO
Her efforts, which have ensured better future for thousands of Nepali children, began 26 years ago.
“It all started in 1984 when I was almost 60 years old and came to Nepal to go trekking. I fell in love with Nepali children right away. I was a lawyer in San Francisco. I knew that one day I had to retire and did not want to spend my days polishing my nails and playing cards with friends,” Murray said at her peaceful residence at Ekantakuna, where she spends seven months of each year.
“I had all this energy and I often thought what would happen after I retire! I was so absorbed and involved in my work [as a lawyer] and I think that subconsciously I was really looking for something that would be as fulfilling as my work,” she said.
Murray knew that she would work for children as she always felt a special affinity with them. But she had no idea her beneficiaries would be the poor children of Nepal’s villages.
A trek from Pokhara to Siklis, the first of 10 she has done so far, took her to villages where she saw children living in abject poverty. She had never seen children that poor.“But they were so much happier than American children who have everything in the world,” she said.
While in the villages, she tried to identify ways in which she could help such children and found out that almost every child wanted to go to school. It was a time when most Nepali children did not go to school.
“I just had a flash. Now here’s something worthwhile to do with my life. I am going to educate Nepali children. Of course I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I was 10,000 miles away (from home). I didn’t know anything about the country. I couldn’t speak the language,” she said.
Back in San Francisco, the more she thought about it the more it seemed the thing she wanted to do. “I came back in 1985. I gave scholarships personally to five orphan boys,” she said.
But it was one curious incident that helped expand her reach to the needy children of Nepal.
“In 1987, I went trekking to the Helambu area with certain friends. On the first day of the trek, I broke my leg. My friends said they wanted to go back because I couldn’t walk. I said, no you’re not going back! So I rode in a doko for eight days, which was a wonderful experience,” she said.
That incident took her to Dr Ashok Banskota, one of the very few orthopedic surgeons in Nepal at the time.
Next year she came back to Nepal and went to Dr Banskota’s hospital at Jorpati.
There she met an 11-year-old girl. Dr Banskota told her that until three years ago, the girl couldn’t walk because her legs had suffered serious burn injuries. He had fitted her with artificial limbs. The girl wanted to go to a school in Kathmandu.
“I said I can send her to a boarding school. That opened the floodgates,” she said. The hospital gave her access to the needy children of Nepal in a major way.
The girl she sent to a boarding school is a married woman now. She has a child and a good job.
Since 1987, Murray has been coming to Nepal every year and her charity has freed more than 4,000 indentured laborers in Dang district, apart from supporting the education of another 5,000 children. Among them were disabled children, girls who were rescued from indentured labor, children of ‘dalit’ families and children whose parents were in jail.
Murray’s foundation today runs two homes for children, one for boys that she started in 1992 and one for girls that opened in 1995.
The foundation also runs Nutritional Rehabilitation Homes (NRH) at zonal hospitals to help restore the health of malnourished children who are sent back from hospital with their medicine. At NRH, the children gain the nourishment to strengthen their immune system.
Seeing the success of the first such home the foundation started at Kanti hospital in 1998, the Ministry of Health asked Murray to open more of them. So far, she has set up nine such centers across the country and is planning to set up five more, which will make for one in each zone.
So far, 5,000 children have benefited from the Nutritional Rehabilitation homes that have a 93-percent success rate in restoring children’s health.
“It is a fascinating program. In just five weeks, children who look like they are almost dying grow fat and happy and are in good health,” she said.
PIGLETS FOR GIRLS
In 1997, Murray visited Dang during the Maghe Sankranti festival when poor families would sell off their daughters as Kamlari bonded laborers.
“I came to know that there were thousands and thousands and thousands of girls, as young as six years old, who were bonded away for a mere 50 dollars a year,” she said. “That made me so angry.”
Murray tried to free the girls from the slavery by offering their parents money equivalent to what the labor contractors were offering. But village women advised her not to give money to their husbands as it would not last long.
“Then we found that they like pork products in the Tharu community. So we gave each family a baby piglet which they could breed and sell for as much as they would get by selling off their daughters. We sent the girls to school and supported their education. We are still doing it,” she said.
Thanks to campaigning by her organization, the Supreme Court banned the Kamlari tradition in 2006.
What is it that makes some people decide to spend their lives helping others when most people choose a different path?
“Because it’s the most rewarding thing you could do in life,” she said.
“I wake up every morning, and I know today I am going to do something terrific for a child. Maybe I’ll save a life or help a child get educated. It keeps me happy and fulfilled,” she said.
“It’s enjoyable, above everything else. After all these years, I’ve seen these children who came to beg in Pashupati become refined, beautiful young women finishing college,” she said.