by Deb Grivas Grivas, Wentworth Falls
As featured in The Country Web 2017 Annual
We’re sitting in the back of a taxi dangerously weaving through choking traffic on the dusty and chaotic streets of Kathmandu. I’m here volunteering with an organisation called the Mitrataa Foundation which is run by Australian woman Bec Ordish. I’m listening to her speak on her phone while I’m trying to distract my attention from the impending death I feel I may be facing with this taxi driver. Amongst the cacophony of car horns, street vendors and motorbikes, Bec’s voice is soothing and calming.
‘It’s OK darling, I know the exams are hard but you tried your best. I know … I know … It will be OK … remember to breathe … I understand…’
Bec is placating one of her ‘daughters’ who is distraught after receiving poor results in her preparation exams for the national exam. National exams are a big deal in Nepal and with over a 50 per cent failure rate, the pressure on students to pass is immense.
Originally from Bathurst NSW, Bec has many ‘daughters’ and many ‘sons’ too. In fact, at last count she currently has over 200 children spread across various schools in the city of Kathmandu and surrounding districts. Mitrataa, among other things, helps house and educate under-privileged children by providing them with ‘Dream Catchers Scholarships’ which pays for their tuition and offers a life skills program and family support as required. Bec calls these children her ‘kids’ and her passion and dedication to improving their lives is evident in the way she speaks to them and about them.
‘Part of my job is to get to know each child.’
Bec is explaining to me what drives her to do such difficult and challenging work.
‘I believe every single person has a gift to offer the world. My job … my privilege … is to help them find that gift and help them set it free.’
Bec’s enthusiasm is palpable.
‘It’s the most incredible feeling … it’s that magic moment when someone starts to believe in him or herself. When they see that they can do it … that look in their eyes of possibility.’
Bec founded Mitrataa (meaning ‘friendship’ in Nepali) 17 years ago after a volunteering stint in Kathmandu. An intellectual property lawyer by profession, she was moved by the plight of one mother she met who showed up on the doorstep of a school every morning, begging for her son to attend. When Bec found out it would cost the equivalent of $300 Australian dollars to educate the boy for a year, she didn’t hesitate to offer to pay the fees for him.
Realising that such a small gesture could potentially change a life, Bec began raising money by rallying her friends and family. As word spread, more people made donations and by 2005 it became clear that running Mitrataa would require a fulltime commitment.
Bec eventually quit her job and moved to Kathmandu and has lived there ever since. She has since adopted two young Nepali girls who have grown into confident young women and are working beside her on a myriad of projects, including leadership training, community kitchens, community sustainability projects, teacher training, medical support programs, English programs in rural schools—all with the underlying goal to empower the Nepali people.
Nepal has a bevy of social and political problems including corruption and poverty that seeps its way into every aspect of life. Public education is inadequate and social injustices pervade. As a result, these children’s lives have been witness to more heartache than they should at their age. The devastation of the 2015 earthquake that rocked the country compounded the problems leaving many with a feeling of hopelessness and desperation.
‘I see my role as sharing the stories of the Nepali people. They want to be heard and they want people to know that things are hard for them but they don’t want our pity. They also want people to know how hard they are working to change things.
Many charitable organisations come to Nepal with great intentions to help but often perpetuate a sense of dependence. Mitrataa helps create the bridge to empower people—we are not working for them from above but with them to enable them to help themselves.’
Bec laughs when asked about Mitrataa’s vision for the future.
‘We want to work our way out of a job! By empowering these students and their families we hope to mentor them into finding solutions for themselves. At the end of the day, we need to build strong, supportive nurturing networks of ‘cheer squads’—individuals and schools and communities that can continue the work of inspiring, believing in and co-creating a thriving, flourishing Nepal.’
Bec’s phone rings again. It is another one of her ‘kids’ ringing to tell her about her exam results. This phone call is cheerier. She has passed all of her subjects. Bec nearly bursts with pride.
The taxi pulls up in front of a small school in the suburbs of Kathmandu. It’s a Sunday afternoon and we have gathered here to take part in one of the monthly ‘Dream Catcher’s’ sessions run by Mitrataa for the students and their families. We arrive a bit late and the session is in progress, run by one of Bec’s adopted daughters, Nimu. She is talking about preparing for winter and brainstorming ideas that might help everyone get through it.
Winter is a particularly difficult time in the city as food becomes scarce and the city is subject to long periods without electricity, and therefore no heating, lights or hot water, due to the government imposed load shedding. Fuel for cooking is expensive and hard to come by. Fresh water often runs dry due to poor government infrastructure. People get sick and medical help is insufficient and expensive.
Bec explains that the purpose of these Dream Catchers sessions is to network and collaborate and to build a sense of community among these poverty stricken families. Together they share in sorrows, joys and experience, to solution-find, to cry and laugh.
The discussion becomes overwhelming for one woman, a single mother of five. She can’t bare the thought of having to face another winter. She sobs uncontrollably. It is heartbreaking to witness. Bec moves close to her and quietly consoles her, nodding her head and gently stroking her arm as the woman weeps and shares her anguish. She later organises a food package and blankets be delivered to her and pays for the woman to visit a doctor.
The group share some stories and they brainstorm ways to overcome the difficulties of water shortages and lack of electricity and poor health. The mood lightens as ideas flow. Bec then gives each student a small solar charged lamp for them to use to study by when the electricity goes out, which often occurs for up to 12 hours a day during the winter season. The children smile as if it’s Christmas.
By the end of the meeting I’m emotionally exhausted and I’m aware that Bec and her staff run more than 10 of these meetings a month. In the taxi on the way back to my hotel, I ask Bec how she does it. How does she keep going in the face of all the heartache?
She ponders the question before answering, ‘As the Kenyan proverb goes, ‘Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable’. That’s the power of connecting and collaborating and that’s at Mitrataa’s heart.