Lalit Gurung, Manager of The ISIS Children’s Foundation in Nepal, shares the joys and challenges of reintegrating trafficked children with their parents.
BY LALIT GURUNG
June 1 marked the UN Global Day of Parents – a day created to celebrate the role of parents in the world and the rights of children to grow up in a family environment, with happiness, love and understanding. Tragically, in Nepal many children are denied this life, as many parents from remote and impoverished parts of the nation are tricked into sending their children to orphanages, often lured by the promise of an education for their children. A recent investigation by UNICEF found that 85% of children in the orphanages they visited in Nepal had at least one living parent.
In 2006, ISIS found 136 children in a basement in Kathmandu. They had been trafficked from their homes in Humla, and were living in dire conditions. Very early on, ISIS committed to locating the parents of these children, and to reintegrating them with their families wherever possible, to give them the opportunity to build strong bonds with their families and communities of origin.
The first step to achieve this was to locate all the parents of these children. ISIS partnered with a Humla-based NGO called The Himalayan Innovative Society (THIS) to help. Before departing for Humla, the THIS team gathered photos and videos of the children in Kathmandu so that their parents would be able to identify them. It was a dangerous time in Nepal, as the civil unrest with the Maoists was at its peak. However, despite the risks to their own personal safety, the THIS team walked through the mountains for 60 days, visiting 19 Humli villages until they had traced the families of 101 children. The other 35 families were traced within the following month.
Parents were shocked to hear of the terrible adversity their children had faced. As far as they were aware their children were attending boarding schools in Kathmandu, when in reality the children were living in abject poverty, with many forced to beg on the streets for food to survive.
Despite locating all of the families, it was not a simple case of immediately repatriating the children back to Humla. The children had suffered greatly, and the first priority was to ensure that proper rehabilitation services were provided. ISIS also felt it was important to try and address some of the root causes of trafficking so that these children and others would not be sent away again. Through a holistic community development programme, ISIS worked to ensure that the children’s basic needs for health, education and infrastructure were met in their own communities.
ISIS always saw institutional care of these children as a last resort, and we began discussing and assessing the possibility of reintegrating the children from mid-2007. However, there were many barriers. Most of the children were brought to Kathmandu when they were very young and did not have many memories of their communities and families. It was therefore important for ISIS to help build these relationships. This was challenging as there are very few means of communication between Humla and Kathmandu. Even when mobile phones or telephones are available, due to the high altitude landscape, the connectivity is too poor for quality conversation. Also, language was often a barrier. Many of the children had no memory of their local dialects due to years of isolation from their families and communities, and in some cases the parents and the children could not understand each other.
The first step towards overcoming these barriers was the establishment of the ISIS office in Simikot. This helped the parents to come closer to their children, through regular updates from ISIS staff and through the exchange of letters and photos, along with occasional telephone contact. The children also began to return home to their families during long festival breaks to spend time with them. Some parents even travelled to Kathmandu to see their children. ISIS also began language classes in Kathmandu so the children could learn their local dialects.
But even as the families grew closer, many parents were still concerned about their child returning home. They felt the child would be worst off with their family than under ISIS’ care. Having their children receive an education in Kathmandu was a matter of social prestige, and parents were concerned that the child would receive a worst quality education in Humla. They were also fearful that if the child returned home they would be labelled a failed case, damaging the reputation of both the parents and the child in their community. ISIS social workers worked closely with these families to ensure that they understood why it was in the best interests of their child to return home, and that ISIS would continue to support the child until graduation. It was also important to demonstrate that the quality of education provided by Yalbang School was comparable, or in some cases even better, than education available in Kathmandu.
To date, 52 of the children have been reintegrated or repatriated to their families of origin, and they are flourishing. I have had the privilege of watching children like Birendra grow from mischievous, loving children into a bright, hopeful youth, now living with their families once again.
Birendra was separated from his family for nine years before meeting them again in 2012. The visit completely changed his life, and he returned to ISIS with a strong desire to return to his family. He was reintegrated in 2014, at age 15. His schooling and living costs are supported by ISIS, and he has big plans for the future.
Bhuji, his mother says it best – “We are truly proud and happy to see him closer to us”.
All of us at ISIS feel the same. We are thrilled to see this family back together once again.