From Tragedy to Trustee

Written by Caroline Milne on Thursday 18th March 2021

From Tragedy to Trustee

Caroline meeting ladies from the Dalit (untouchable) community in Dhanusha District, south Nepal.

I first went to Nepal in September 2006, around two months after my teenage daughter had died following a tragic accident. The accident had happened in Qatar where I was working, and we were living. After spending four weeks in intensive care in Doha, it was decided best to return to the UK for a long rehabilitation process. I had known her situation was bad, she lay in a coma, but the prognosis given back in England was bleak; she was basically in a vegetative state and would never recover. Despite this lack of hope, no one expected her to die two weeks later. The brain injury was just too severe.

It felt like my life was over. There was always just me and my daughter, her father had never been a part of her life. I had lost everything and did not know how I could possibly go on. Fortunately, I read an article in a newspaper about Philip Holmes and the work he was then doing in Nepal to rescue children who had been trafficked to India and made to perform in circuses. All I knew about Nepal was that it had Mount Everest, and that things must be pretty bad there if people were prepared to put up with the dire conditions they experienced working on construction projects in Qatar. Tragedy had led Philip to Nepal, and I felt that I had to go there too. Also, Kathmandu had always conjured up an image of an exciting and exotic place.

Looking back now, I can see how my poor parents must have been worried sick about me getting on a plane to fly off halfway round the world to meet a man we did not know and with whom I had only exchanged a few emails. I never gave it a second thought at the time. 

Kathmandu was exciting and exotic; and overwhelming, and noisy, and dirty. It was all this and more, but my trip there undoubtedly saved my life. It was amazing being out and about the streets of Thamel. I was also difficult at times due to the large number of roof top restaurants and given the fact my daughter had died as a result of a fall, heights were a particular challenge for me. Sitting on the small Buddha Airlines plane down to visit a project in Bhairahawa, I remember thinking to myself, 'I know I've been wishing I was dead, but I was hoping for passing away in my sleep, not falling from the sky'. 

I can't remember all the details of this trip as I think I was still in a state of shock after what I had been through. What I do remember is the smiles of the children I met. Yes, I'd been through something terrible, but I had my family, a roof over my head and the chance to build a life again. These children had suffered unimaginable horrors in their short lives and were still smiling and showing hope. It really put my own pain into perspective.

I have gradually built my life up again since my first visit to Nepal. I had been working on an Education Reform project in Qatar, using my 14 years' experience of secondary mathematics teaching in the UK. I tried returning to work in a UK school shorty after my trip, but just could not handle it, so I retrained to teach English as a foreign language. My working life became rich and varied due to my love of travelling and experience in both mathematics and English Language. I worked in Turkey, Libya, Abu Dhabi, Thailand, Egypt and Moscow. It was during my time at an international school in Moscow that I felt drawn to Nepal again. Time does heal, but I was experiencing some unsettling feelings and emptiness. When I contacted Philip to see if I would be of any use for a long-term volunteer post in Nepal, he was very keen.

September 2018 saw me back on a plane to Kathmandu. The plan was to use my educational experience to help with the non-formal education programme in the children's refuge and also gathering material for use on social media and for reports. I was a very different person in many ways this time as I was definitely so much stronger than I had been the first time. I may have changed, but many other things had not. Kathmandu was still the same glorious, hectic, cauldron of life, albeit still damaged from the 2015 earthquake. The children I met were obviously not the same ones, but they too had horrendous stories that did not stop their heart-warming smiles from shining through. The other constant was the fact that no matter what I gave, whether it was time, experience, love, I still got it back, ten times over!

Nepal is firmly in my heart now, as are many of the people I met there. When the opportunity arose to become a trustee of Pipal Tree and build on the existing connection, I was so pleased. Having seen first-hand the situation for many in the country, I am so excited to be involved with the upcoming projects, especially around education, in which I have an obvious interest. 

There are some incredible initiatives on the horizon that really engage the whole community in the education system and address the very real issues around climate and environment. Our partner organisation, Mithila Wildlife Trust, has a wealth of experience in the local ecosystem and are planning to build a hands-on, practical course for students that takes the theory from the national school curriculum into the field. Another plan is to train young women from around 20 local disadvantaged families on how to gather seeds from native plant species and set up home-nurseries. This involvement of community is key to success, and will be further enhanced by opportunities for staff, students and families to come together and learn useful life skills, as well as providing a source of income.

Schools in the area in which we work are traditionally neglected due to the majority of students being from the Dalit community and therefore perceived as less important. This makes the establishment of a computer lab, high-quality teacher training, well-equipped classrooms and student reward systems all the more valuable. They will really give these young people the opportunities they deserve. I see education as being a key factor to improving conditions and combining this with the wider society beyond the classroom should have a longer lasting impact that sees real change happen. You can be a part of it too!

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