Sunil Thapa is a young man of few words – and that’s hardly surprising. Three years ago, when he was just 13 and growing up in the impoverished Kavre region of Nepal, his entire life collapsed around him in the space of just six weeks.
His alcoholic father died. His mother abandoned him and his grandparents refused to let him stay at their crumbling home. The couple barely eked out their own hand-to-mouth existence, they said. Another person to feed – even if it was their own grandson – would destroy them.
Sunil has not spoken much since. His face is set in a serious expression. You wouldn’t quite call him sombre, but smiling doesn’t often come into his repertoire.
Yet at this moment, as he stands with Friday, the 16-year-old cannot help but open up a little. “It is very beautiful,” he says. “This view is inspiring. I come to look at it often.”
He’s right. It is beautiful. For, on all four sides of us, mountains of jaw-dropping majesty rise up from a valley of lush green rice fields. A babbling brook flows lazily below. A cloudless blue sky skims across the top. It is the sort of sight many of us only ever see on our computer desktops or in holiday brochures.
Yet we are taking it all in from the rooftop terrace of Sunil’s home. That’s because this young man got a much-deserved lucky break when he was taken in by Eco Farm and Orphanage – a rural children’s centre near the city of Panauti built from scratch by a local husband and wife.
Bibhu and Charu Thakur, who run a successful tourist company, Himalayan Holidays, wanted to give something back to society in their spare time. Now, in a country where there is no state system for looking after the 15,000 plus orphans – an after-effect of the extreme poverty and 10-year civil war that raged until 2006 – and where children’s homes have become a byword for mistreatment, malnourishment and even molestation, this little place is winning plaudits for doing things differently.
Here, Sunil – and 16 other kids, orphans and abandoned, aged from four to 16 – live in a three-storey complex which, though necessarily rudimentary in some respects (showers are in a separate unheated building, for instance), feels like a home. There is good food, good education (provided at a local school a short stroll away past the brook) and good staff who live in-house.
There are gardens to play in, vegetable patches to tend to, books to read, and a TV room to relax in. The youngsters are provided with routine, new clothes and someone to care for them.
Walking in, there are shoes, footballs and dolls scattered about the place, which gives off the sense of a place where children can thrive.
“We hope that’s what it is,” says Bibhu, 54, as we look around the Dh750,000 facility. “We’ve only been open since 2012 and it’s been such hard work but when you see how some of these kids have developed – how they’ve come out of their shells or progressed at school or even just fattened up – it makes it all worthwhile.”
Today, Friday is here with the Rotary Club of Jumeirah-Dubai. The organisation has, over the last year, become one of the biggest supporters of the home. President Amelie Campsey stumbled on the place during a trekking holiday and suggested that the group – which was formed in 2007 and aims to harness the expertise of its members for good causes – make it their main international project.
Since then, members have run book appeals (they’ve sent some 500 kilos worth in total), while also advising the centre on legal and financial issues.
Now, nine members of the Rotary Club have flown the 3,000 miles here to hand over some Dh10,000 raised in donations, as well as dozens of presents for the kids. The money will be spent on installing solar panels to ensure the orphanage maintains power during rural Nepal’s daily blackouts – which can last for 18 hours at a time.
“Nepal is a very beautiful country with a very sweet culture,” says Amelie, head of sales and business development with building specialists Legrand, in Dubai. “But it is also incredibly impoverished, and children from broken families – especially in poorer areas – have so few chances in life.”
“This home is clean, and well-managed, and the location is jaw-dropping; green and serene and with plenty of fresh air. It’s a place where children can dream again, where they can be children once more. That is why we felt it was such a good place to support.”
Certainly, there can be no doubt places like this are much needed in Nepal. Accurate government figures for orphans – like accurate government figures for most things in Nepal – simply don’t exist. But the Nepali Times has estimated there are 15,000 children living in orphanages in capital Kathmandu alone. The quality of orphanages is questionable at best. The country’s Central Child Welfare Board says 90 per cent of homes fail to meet the government’s minimum standards. Yet the government itself has no policy for dealing with parentless children.
“That is part of the reason we set up,” says Bibhu. “We cannot do much with one home but it is better than nothing. If we have just 17 children here, these are 17 children whose lives we can change. We have told them all that this is their home – they can stay until they are ready to leave, whether that be to go to university at 18 or after they find a job.”
If all goes to plan, it is hoped those 17 children will be the first of many over the years.
Bibhu and Charu first decided to open the home after setting up a charitable organisation called Mission Himalaya in 2008, which specialised in projects providing free medical care to remote parts of mountainous northern Nepal. One especially successful scheme saw nearly 2,000 rural people given free eye tests, with 100 of those then given cataract surgery.
“We would run our trekking holidays past these villages and the people were so in need and so isolated there,” Bibhu explains.
“They would come out to us asking if we had any medical supplies and, of course, we didn’t. It was heartbreaking. We had to help and started Mission Himalaya.”
But, after their grown-up daughters – Karishma, 28, and Trishna, 24 – did volunteer work at an orphanage in Kathmandu, the couple were so distressed by the tales of child poverty that they decided to set up their own children’s home too.
Starting from scratch, they firstly sounded out funding, much of which actually came from three UAE-based organisations, Gulf for Good charity, The English College Dubai and Al Ain English Speaking School.
All three institutions – which Bibhu previously dealt with through Mission Himalaya – backed his idea of building a well-managed, eco-friendly orphanage that could become a model for others in the country. They backed him, in fact, to the tune of half a million dirhams. Much of the rest of the initial capital was provided by Himalayan Holidays itself. Then, after sourcing the funds, the couple found the land.
They settled on this spot for two reasons: firstly, located more than 35km from the urban sprawl of Kathmandu, it provides clean and crisp air amid stunning scenery. Secondly, a local landowner provided the plot – all 11,000 square metres – for a more than reasonable price. “He was impressed by what we wanted to do and felt it would be good for the area,” says Bibhu.
Next, they constructed the building, designing it to include landscaped gardens and play areas outside, as well as a dorm each for boys and girls, a medical room and fully equipped kitchen. It finally opened in 2012 – three years after the initial idea – which, it could be said, is when the hard work really started.
More than 250 youngsters – brought in by grandparents, neighbours and non-government agencies – have so far been put forward for possible places. “But because we have so few spaces we have to be very tough on criteria,” says Bibhu. “These have to be kids who really have nowhere else to go. In Nepal this isn’t always the case. Sometimes kids are put in orphanages because their parents want a break. We accepted one little girl who was brought in by her grandparents because her mother had apparently died. But she kept telling us she wanted to go home to her mum. After a while it became clear that she wasn’t just in denial. Her mother was still at home. We dropped her off the next day. It is a sad story but we cannot give places to children who have someone. This is a home for children who have no one.”
Six staff have been employed, with two living in-house. Bibhu and Charu visit once every couple of weeks from their base in Kathmandu to manage the facility, which costs about Dh30,000 annually to run.
The children themselves – 11 boys and six girls, who come from mainly eastern Nepal – all go to school full-time. Before they leave each morning, they are woken at 7am, given breakfast and encouraged to spend an hour exercising. After school, they have free time before dinner and study time after. Lights go out at 9pm. Weekends are less structured with time devoted to play.”
“Routine is important,” says Charu. “These children often come from chaotic homes where there was no structure. By providing that, we are trying to bring them normality.”
The couple designed the building to cater for up to 30 orphans but, for now – and because of limited finances – they believe keeping numbers down is beneficial to the youngsters. Staff get to devote more time to each child while resources aren’t over-stretched. Perhaps one member of the Rotary Club of Jumeirah-Dubai who is best placed to comment on the centre is Shefali Ranthe. She grew up in an orphanage in Bangladesh before being adopted, aged eight, by a Danish couple. She moved to Dubai 15 years ago.
“The kids all look so happy here,” says the 42-year-old artist who lives in Jumeirah Lakes Towers. “It’s a very simple place, but it’s doing the basics right. Emphasis on education is so important.”
Founding Rotary Club member Dilip Thaker, who runs his own stationery retailers and lives on Shaikh Zayed Road, is similarly impressed.
“Lives are being changed for the better here,” the 44-year-old notes simply. “The Rotary Club is proud to support the home. We hope to do so for a long time. We hope to see these children turn into fine young adults.”
There’s no doubt either that Bibhu and Charu are thankful of the support. “We know we can’t provide everything, but we do our best,” says Bibhu. “And we want every one of the kids to stay with us until they can stand on their own two feet, when they’re ready to deal with the world. That’s the aim.”
It’s one which is working too, it seems. Sunil – that young man of so few words – might just be the proof.
He’s the oldest of the group and has taken on something of a (albeit quiet) big brother role. But more importantly, he’s gone from being semi-literate when he arrived to becoming something of a star pupil at school. He’s taking exams soon. The hope is he will then stay at the home and remain in full-time education until he’s 18.
“He has a real opportunity to make something of himself,” says Bibhu. “I’ve told him if he stays on and does well, there’ll be a job with Himalayan Holidays when he finishes if he wants. And if he doesn’t, we’ll do everything we can to help him find a job he does want.”
Sunil seems happy with the situation. Does he almost – almost – even smile when Friday mentions it? “I like school,” he says quietly. “I try hard. I like living here.”
He is a young man of few words. But the ones he does speak are evidence surely that Eco Farm and Orphanage is making a real difference to these young lives.