Poverty at the top of the world

Nepal's hotel rooms are empty. Ten years after fighting between Maoists and royal forces began, the tourists have all been scared off. A downtrodden populace has been left in its wake.

Nepal’s hotel rooms are empty.

Ten years after fighting between Maoists and royal forces began, the tourists have all been scared off. A downtrodden populace has been left in its wake. Under such conditions, earning a living is nearly impossible.

The poorest of the poor have suffered the most, forcing parents to put their children in orphanages that lack windows, desks or books.

“It’s survival mode,” said Liesel Briggs, who lives just outside Whitehorse.

“It’s not that the parents are bad,” said her daughter Rosemarie. “It’s just that when there’s that kind of desperation, the parents can’t raise the kids.”

“They’re just trying to survive.”

The recent hit film Slumdog Millionaire glorified an improbable rags-to-riches story set in the slums of Mumbai, India—Nepal’s densely populated neighbour.

But in Nepal, people go to India to get rich.

“That’s where they go to get good jobs and more money,” said Liesel over coffee one recent morning. “Jobs like working in a restaurant or a hotel.”

Indian money is worth more than Nepali money, she said.

Children abandoned by their parents can’t make the crossing into India. They’re left to beg in a world with no social safety net, except for the meagre education they receive at an orphanage.

But every once in a while, they get a charitable boost.

Liesel and Rosemarie Briggs first brought books and gifts to the Linh Son Orphanage in the Lumbini region of Nepal two years ago.

They are now working on their biggest fundraising drive by organizing a Dance-A-Thon at the Mt. McIntyre Recreation Centre on April 18.

Anyone is welcome to come dance to several of the Yukon’s finest musical acts and win prizes at the end of the night.

The cover charge will buy the orphans books in their native tongue.

“It’s hard for us to imagine never having had a book in your own language,” said Rosemarie. “You’re 15 or 16 years old and you know how to read, and maybe there’s been one textbook you’ve shared, but you’ve never read a book in your own language.”

Books are for rich people, she said. Flaunting a magazine on the street and reading in public is a sign of snobbery, easily taken as a status symbol.

“When you see that sort of need, and you see that there’s so much that’s required, I think it’s impossible to spend any length of time there and not want to help,” said Rosemarie.

The Briggs will pay for their own airfare and accommodation to Nepal, and will stop in Delhi to buy books in Hindi and Nepali.

The last time they did it, in 2007, they even found translated Harry Potter books for the kids.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s fairy tales or whatever it is,” said Liesel. “A 15-year-old boy is just excited to read a book,” said Liesel.

Liesel first visited India in the 1970s with her husband; it was the beginning of a lifelong affection for a region where political strife has provoked cycles of poverty.

In 2006, Liesel and Rosemarie visited India and Nepal to volunteer. They were asked to bring back books.

“They have no windows in their bedrooms; it’s just bars,” said Liesel. “This is the standard; it’s not an unusual thing.”

Most orphans pick garbage or beg. At the Linh Son Orphanage in Lumbini, situated smack in the middle of the country’s Indian border, around 265 children from six to 16 are cared for in a small building with few learning tools.

There are few books and only cracked chalk boards. There is only one soccer ball.

“One soccer ball is the only classroom management tool they’ve ever had,” said Liesel. “The teacher says, ‘If you behave, you get to play with the ball.’”

“Books are the same way,” said Rosemarie.

The Kids Helping Kids Club at the J.V. Clark School in Mayo did the first fundraising for the Nepali orphanage. It raised more than $1,000 and the community donated toys for the 2007 visit.

“I brought some stuffed toys from Mayo,” said Liesel. “A girl was just grasping onto this doll. It was the first time the girl had a doll. I brought the boys some little tiny trucks, and they just couldn’t believe it.”

The Linh Son Orphanage isn’t the only place Liesel and Rosemarie are helping. The Tonglen Beggar School, across the border in Dharamsala, India, will also get Hindi books during the Briggs’ next visit.

The beggars’ school is a large tent.

“At night it would double as a barn and be filled the cows,” said Rosemarie.

“We would shovel off the floor in the morning and we’d put down carpets.”

There’s usually between nine and 30 children in the beggars’ school at a time.

It’s astonishing that children in such dire circumstances remain upbeat, energetic, and, well, childish most times, note the two women.

They are incredibly appreciative of whatever gifts their new Yukon friends bring them.

“They’re orphans for political reasons,” said Liesel. “Some of their parents have been killed in the warring. Some of them have a mother, but she can’t afford to take care of him, so she says, ‘You have to go.’”

Nestled between China and India, Nepal has had a tumultuous past. Ruled by kings for generations, Maoists began causing serious social disorder a decade ago. Peace among the country’s different political factions slowly emerged in recent years, and elections were held for the first time last summer after the king abdicated the throne.

It is now the world’s youngest republic.

But before all this, Lumbini was known as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama—2,500 years ago. The spiritual leader eventually became Gautama Buddha.

Lumbini was declared a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1997 and it remains a popular pilgrimage site for Buddhists, as it is filled with ancient monasteries and relics.

Despite its politics, Lumbini remains a place where ancient architectural wonders rest on picturesque Himalayan foothills.

“They’re really in a rural area,” said Liesel. “It’s rice fields, and it’s the most volatile section of Nepal, so there’s been a lot of Maoist type of activity.”

“There’s also a separatist movement,” said Rosemarie. This is because the people of Lumbini are ethnically of Indian descent, she said.

“We had one or two days off and we stayed at a hotel out of Kathmandu for a rest after we bought all these books,” said Liesel. “There were two or three people booked in the hotel and it had over 200 rooms.”

“They just had no one there.”

While the recent political changes bring a glimmer of hope for Nepal, the orphans remain unable to help themselves in a country just beginning to help itself.

“There was one boy, Mischa, he turned to me,” said Liesel. “His English is pretty good, and says, ‘I hope somebody wants me.’”

“His mom was a washer on the side of the river and he had little tiny siblings.

“They didn’t want him; they couldn’t afford to keep him.”

The Hands of Hope Dance-A-Thon opens at 5 p.m. on Saturday. Music starts at 6 p.m and will feature Annie Avery, Bob Hamilton and family, the Sophisticated Cavemen, Ryan McNally, Kyle Cashen among others.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.

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