ASTANA – A small group of staff and pupils from the British school Haileybury Astana left Astana International Airport April 16 to make the 2,855-km, 30-hour journey to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Irish native Aideen Robbins, the school’s head of math, explained the reason for the trip. “Nepal is an amazing country and somewhere that I wanted to share with my pupils. It is culturally and geographically very different from Kazakhstan and I knew it would be an invaluable experience for them.” The purpose of the trip was to visit The Umbrella Foundation’s children’s homes in Kathmandu and also spend two days in the village of Sukute in Sindhupalchok to set up and paint a new library in the local school.
Despite the fact the all-female trio of pupils are reasonably well-travelled, they all admitted to having to do background reading on the country before the trip. Aiganim Nurakhanova, 14, Sharon Ng, 13, and Akkerbez Mussaibekova, 13, decided to take this trip for one main reason. “I really wanted to help Umbrella,” said Nurakhanova, a year nine pupil, though she added that Nepal was not a place her family would ever have considered visiting together. Mussaibekova, a year eight pupil, described her desire to help other children in the world and admitted that she had Googled information about the country prior to the visit.
Despite there being an easy connection from Astana via Sharjah and a visa which could be purchased at the airport, the journey was not as smooth as the group had hoped it would be. Russian teacher Anuar Sharipov described the journey. “It was quite exhausting … We flew to Sharjah and spent seven hours in the airport, then we were supposed to land in Kathmandu at 9:30 a.m. But our flight from Sharjah was delayed for one hour. We had no clue what was going to happen next. We were flying in circles for one hour above Kathmandu’s airport because it was very cloudy. Then the airport was closed and we had to fly to Lucknow in India. Sitting for three hours on a plane wasn’t good at all. For obvious reasons they didn’t let us out. But the worst thing was that (Air Arabia) the airline didn’t provide any water or food. Eventually we flew back to Kathmandu when the airport was opened again and landed at 3 p.m. But I must admit that the kids were great and fine; they didn’t complain at all about that.”
Robbins has worked closely with the charity for a number of years, having travelled to Nepal as a volunteer with them nine years ago. In 2012, she spent four months volunteering with the Irish-registered charity in one of their children’s homes in Nepal’s capital. She returned for five months in 2013 and spent most of the time working in rural village schools. This is where The Umbrella Foundation has reunited and reintegrated children back into their communities. The charity, formed with the aim of “protecting Nepal’s children,” is an international, non-profit organisation which attempts to improve the lives of children and their families who are affected by trafficking, poverty and war.
Robbins further described their work. “The charity was established in 2005 in response to the growing number of illegal ‘orphanages’ neglecting children’s most basic rights – food, education, safe shelter, healthcare and love. They are a family-first charity which rescues vulnerable children and reintegrates them with their families and rural communities. When this is not possible, they support them in homes until such time as they can stand on their own two feet. It really is a very special organisation. The children in their care are now healthy, happy and well-adjusted. They have been given a new lease on life. It is run like one big family.”
“To date they have rescued 388 children; of this number, 74 are currently living in their childcare homes, 172 are reintegrated into their local communities, the remaining number are going through or have already completed the rehabilitation programme,” said Robbins.
In addition to the charity work, the pupils were able to enjoy the fascinating culture of the country. They visited all the famous historical sites in Kathmandu, such as Monkey Temple and Boudhanath, the village of Gumab and walked miles taking in the sights of the city.
The main focus of the visit, however, was the charity work and the group visited three houses (Manaslu and Annapurna for boys and Gaurishankar for girls) where the children all live as if they were one big family. The charity also built a proper library in the Sukute school, two hours from Kathmandu.
The local pupils were fascinated to meet children from Kazakhstan and eager to find out as much as they could about the country. The group was greeted with singing and dancing and the girls were presented with flowers. “The children of each house greeted us warmly, despite only knowing that we had come from Kazakhstan,” Ng said. Sadly, the poverty and chaos shocked the group. Nurakhanova noted that life in Nepal is very different from hers in Astana. “These people don’t have much, but value what they have.” The pupils all agreed the experience was a fantastic opportunity and that they would continue to support the charity and one day hopefully return.
The group departed Nepal on Wednesday and that Saturday, Kathmandu and its surrounding areas were hit by an earthquake measuring 7.9 in magnitude, killing thousands and leaving many more homeless.
Sharipov expressed his relief at departing before the tragedy and added “obviously, all my thoughts now are with the wonderful Nepali people and children. I now look at the photos and see the places where we went, only to know they are only ruins.”
Thankfully, some of the people they befriended in Nepal are safe; though since the earthquake they have been sleeping outside in makeshift tents, as the buildings around them have crumbled to the ground.
They have not yet heard if the school and community that they visited in Sukute are safe or not. There is no electricity and phone lines are down. This has made it impossible for The Umbrella Foundation to make contact with so many of the reintegrated children and check on their safety.
Robbins further explained the present situation: “The next few months are going to be extremely difficult. The Umbrella Foundation has enough food and water for the children for the next few days, but the future is extremely uncertain. They have set up an earthquake appeal and any donations, however small, go a long way to help the situation.”