Our last two blog posts have been the inspirational life story of Sushil Babu Chhetri (here and here). In this post we asked Sushil to give us his candid thoughts on some of the issues he touches upon in his story.
Much of your childhood was spent in orphanages. Do you think this is a good way to care for children? Why? What impact did it have on your life?
I grew up in two very different orphanages – one was corrupt and exploitative, the other was trying its best to care for the children. But in the context of Nepal, even the concept of an orphanage makes no sense – they shouldn’t have to exist at all. Families here are big and live close together. We also live in mutually-supportive communities, where neighbours help out neighbours. Why, then, can’t we support a kid in need? Why should it be some white person’s responsibility to take care of them?
The child trafficking that is currently happening in Nepal is extremely damaging. It looks good in some ways – children that lack opportunity in remote areas get given food, clothes and education – but in the long term, children are being mentally, emotionally and physically harmed. I know it myself. After being raised like that it is hard for me to build relationships, it is hard for me to integrate back into my family, hard for me to understand my own culture.
It is also irresponsible for people to start an orphanage as a private enterprise when they don’t have the money to keep it going. We know what a difficult task it is for a family to raise two children well, so how do they expect to care for 50 of them, of all different backgrounds, cultures, personalities and all with different needs and problems? They just start it and are completely dependent on finding donors. The orphanages are all started in the tourist areas hoping that tourists will want to support it and volunteer there. But they are literally risking the lives of children doing that – hundreds of children from remote areas are taken away from their families on the chance that they will be able to make enough money from passing travellers to support them. It is simple – if you don’t have enough money to run an organisation for the long term, don’t do it.
In the event of there being a child who really has no-one, who can’t be supported by their family or community for whatever reason – well, the government already has institutions set up for those cases. We need institutions that follow the proper guidelines, with trained staff who understand child psychology, where children get proper care and access to psychological support. Children in orphanages are already messed up and vulnerable, you can’t just treat them like normal kids. People who start orphanages as private businesses don’t understand this, they play with children’s emotions and futures just to get support. Honestly, if you want to be a real charity worker and do something good for society why don’t you clean the plastic up from the streets? That would have a real impact.
You left home of your own free will at a very young age, but this is quite an unusual situation. Can you tell us about the situation of orphanage trafficking in Nepal?
There were orphanages in Nepal in the past, but they were generally run by the government and were mainly for real orphans or kids that needed special care. The civil war that started in the late 90s messed this up. Parents were scared of keeping their kids in the villages so looked for ways to keep them safe by sending them to cities. They were easy prey for traffickers who said they could offer their children a better life. Many of the kids that I grew up with had fake death certificates for their parents. It was a time of war and the government in remote areas was barely functioning, so fake papers were easy to come by. It was too dangerous for the local authority workers to stay in the provinces so they lived in the city, and had no idea who had actually died and who hadn’t. Some of the parents knew about the fake papers, seeing it as necessary to get their kids to safety, many others had no clue. But the kids knew that they had parents and were threatened into staying quiet about it.
At that time the big incentive for traffickers to get hold of children was international adoption. It was big business – children were literally sold to foreigners for $40-50,000. The traffickers knew what they were doing – they would claim a kid to be orphaned or abandoned, put a blurry photograph in a newspaper to check that no-one would claim the child, then send them abroad with new parents. But in these remote villages, in war time, when the parents were illiterate – who was even going to get hold of that newspaper, let alone recognise their child? Fortunately after a few high profile cases in the media the trafficking rings were discovered and international adoption was banned.
This wasn’t the end of the problem though, the traffickers just got cleverer. They worked out a new business model. These days the traffickers take money from the parents, claiming it to be school fees. They convince parents that their kids will have a better life in the city. Then there is the religious model – Christians taking children to be converted in churches, Buddhists taking them to monasteries, Hindus, Muslims – all taking kids, all collecting money from volunteers and tourists. In my home area of Surkhet there are hardly any children left in poor families, they have all been taken by one institution or another. No matter the business model, the victim is always the kids.
This is still a huge problem to this day. Despite all the awareness-raising that has been done, all the articles and documentaries, the problem is growing. People have been talking about the problem of street children for about 30 years now, but the issue remains unsolved. Same thing with orphanages. If we really want to stop kids from being trafficked there are two things that we need to do – the first one is to make the parents aware of the situation, so they can make an informed choice. The second one is to raise awareness amongst the volunteers and donors. Basically it is the volunteers who are creating the demand. The volunteers want to play with kids so the traffickers will bring kids to them. If there were no volunteers, no money coming in, no donations, there would be no demand and the traffickers would not go to all that effort to collect children.
I feel like it is the job of big NGOs to bring real awareness about this. The time has passed for just donating stuff as a solution. The NGOs need to coordinate a real campaign for the people, maybe using celebrities and TV, and they need to go to the local authorities in villages to prevent this from happening. We can’t just have NGOs talking to other NGOs about it.
You talk about interactions with volunteers while you were in the orphanage. What are your feelings towards people who decide to volunteer in orphanages?
Well here’s an example. I was living in an orphanage when I was around 14 or 15, and a 17-year old girl came to the orphanage. She had no orientation to the culture here and was wearing completely inappropriate clothes, and we couldn’t do or say anything to her. She stayed just a few days. How could we respect her as our teacher? The volunteers would bring us stuff, but it was the stuff they wanted to give us rather than the stuff that we wanted or needed. We were always in clothes that didn’t fit, that didn’t match our own identity, and that were from a culture totally alien to ours. We were also never able to question this, we just had to follow. I felt that the volunteers were either coming without their brain or without any respect for us, I’m not sure which.
The thing is, any white person can get into an orphanage. All they need is their skin colour as a free pass and they will be welcomed with open arms. Junkies, drug addicts, paedophiles, hippies without anything better to do. I meet so many tourists in Thamel these days, high on LSD or other drugs, and I ask them what they are doing here, and they all say “Oh I volunteer in an orphanage, I am here to play with kids.” Is this really what they think vulnerable children need? They think that we are unable to just play on our own with our friends? I doubt they are thinking about what we need, they just want to satisfy their own needs.
And then there is the issue of attachment disorders. Speaking to you honestly, most of the boys I grew up with don’t know how to interact with women. It’s because they missed their mother’s love, they didn’t learn how to give and receive love from their mum. Now when I am trying to build a relationship with a girl, I don’t even know how to feel and express my emotions. I’m not trying to be bad or mess people around, I just can’t connect to those emotions so I end up wearing a mask. I think what happened is that when I was younger I felt real love for the volunteers that would come, but after a while of them coming and going and never coming back, I stopped being able to feel emotions for them anymore. I learned to not feel things deeply, to never give 100%. I would just smile with a fake smile and not expect anything from them, to protect myself from being hurt. Can you imagine what it feels like to email a volunteer who said they love you and not receive any reply? I lost respect for the volunteers, and in the process I lost respect for people in general. Now when people say they love me I feel suspicious, I wonder “is this love or just sympathy?”
You have said that you think orphanage care negatively impacts on children. How have you seen this manifest in the lives of people you grew up with?
One boy who was with me in the orphanage growing up resented his parents so strongly for what they did to him. He felt like they didn’t love him, that they sold him. He was reunified with them but he couldn’t feel any connection to them. He felt that they just wanted stuff from him. His parents wanted him to get a job and earn money for them – they would say “You studied for all these years in Kathmandu and now you don’t have a job?” So this guy fell in with a bad crowd and ended up stealing a lot of money. He was arrested and was sent to jail. His parents came to visit him at the jail to see if they could support him or bail him out. But he just told them to go and to leave him there. He said “Half of my life was spent eating rice from white people, I can spend the other half of my life eating rice from the government.” Partly that could have been true, but partly it could have been him trying to be a responsible kid for his parents – kind of letting them off the hook, telling them not to waste their money on him. He just feels his life is totally worthless.
There are also lots of street kids and orphanage kids suffering with mental health issues. One 13-year old girl committed suicide. Imagine what trauma she must have gone through to reach that conclusion at the age of 13. I am still in touch with her sister, she writes to me from time to time. I think the main side effects of our childhood are still to come – we are all still young. There are not many like me, who have been able to throw it off and get free of it. Even I have a lot of psychological effects. I feel unable to love, I have some unrealistic expectations, I dream about an angel coming to rescue me. It’s because we grew up being so dependent on outside support, eating other people’s rice and not even thinking for ourselves.
What advice do you have for people wanting to come to Nepal to volunteer in an orphanage?
My advice would be to really think about what you want to achieve through volunteering. Do your research first, and come up with a project plan that will actually make some difference rather than just what makes you feel good. In other words, don’t just come to play with kids, think of the long term impact. Consider this – would you allow any random stranger to come and play with your kids? Of course you wouldn’t.
If you want to volunteer, there are many other issues that Nepal faces that you can have a bigger impact on. For example, rebuilding after the earthquake, cleaning trash off the streets, or teaching in a school and staying for a long enough time to make a difference. Playing with kids is never going to change anything,
Sushil Babu Chhetri is a freelance photographer and filmmaker who is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. His films include Flowers in the Dust and Letter to God. He is also an activist campaigning on behalf of children living on the street and in orphanages. You can follow him on YouTube and Instagram.