Learning, Changing, Serving, Together in Nepal

May 1, 2017

This story comes to us from Tevel B'Tzedek, an Israeli NGO that aims to create Israeli and Jewish leadership passionately engaged in Tikkun Olam—fixing the world—locally and globally.

Last fall Santosh Ghimire, a 23-year-old Nepali man from the Kathmandu Valley, celebrated Shabbat for the first time. No, he’s not Jewish. In fact, he’d never before taken part in any Jewish rituals. He is, however, a fellow with Tevel b’Tzedek, an organization that pairs Nepali volunteers with those from Israel, the United States and other parts of the world. Together, they undertake community building and development projects in rural communities throughout Nepal.

The program began in 2013 and since then, some 110 Fellows have taken part. This year, there are 27 Fellows who first came together in October for the four-week orientation that kicks off the seven-month program.

“It was my first time working with foreigners,” Santosh explained on the telephone from the Tevel office in Kathmandu. He had learned of Tevel from an advertisement in the newspaper. Intrigued, he applied.

“I am surprised by our different cultures, our different values,” he said. “In the month of joint orientation, we are mostly from different cultures, we celebrate Shabbat, and that was new for me, for all the Nepalese. In this festival, we have cooperated with each other. We cooked together and we eat together, and we discuss together.”

After the orientation, the pairs set out on their individual journeys, working in and with local rural communities on issues including agriculture, public health and women’s empowerment. The mandate to repair the world, tikkun olam, drives the volunteers—they share a profound yearning to help those in need better their lives. Santosh, for example, has a master’s degree in rural development and has worked in youth health, education and development programs specifically focusing on HIV-AIDS education, a task made more challenging by the prevalence of drugs and drug users in the country. He was interested in working in rural areas, where people lack modern amenities and, often, education.

In Tevel, he works with 27-year-old Jerusalem native Livia Nulman who traveled to Nepal—to the East in general—for the first time take part in the program. It’s been quite an experience she says. It is the first time she has encountered poverty, for instance.

Shared with other Tevel Fellows, living quarters consist of six mudrooms with tin roofing. A mud outhouse serves as a bathroom. Like other villagers, Fellows have to wait in line to collect water from a natural spring, carry it back home, and then filter it before drinking. The winter is cold and rains a lot.

An industrial engineer by training, and an Orthodox Jew, Livia’s interest in sustainable development is fueled by her commitment to and awareness of Jewish values. “I like making things better, with an added value. I don’t want to improve the big structures, I want to improve peoples’ lives,” she said. “Tikkun olam can be achieved in all different ways. Community development is a good way to do that and I don’t think it’s either improving the world or your own community. It comes together. The fact that I’m abroad in Nepal and not in Jerusalem, my home town, is not paradoxical.”

During the fellowship, she and Santosh travel regularly to six schools in various stages of impoverishment. Focusing specifically on early childhood education, they do everything from giving classrooms a fresh coat of paint to creating networking opportunities among teachers to singing and dancing with the children.

“It’s slow going,” Livia said. “Each school is a little different; it has different challenges. But the main thing is to create a more child-friendly environment. A lot of times we find the teacher just sitting there and the kids are copying out letters. Our goal is to engage kids in small ways, ask questions, talk to them.”

 “We’re also trying to sort of strengthen the community of teachers to see that they have a voice,” she continued. “Early childhood education teachers are considered the bottom of the food chain in terms of resources. So if they want to ask for something, they now know how to do it. They can exchange ideas and know they’re not alone and that their position has value. What they’re doing is valuable.”

“We observe class, sometimes we conduct model classes for the teachers, sometimes we conduct network meetings for all the childhood development teachers,” Santosh added. “We conduct a meeting with the parents of the children to explain what ECD (early childhood education) is, its importance—this is the first time they’ve heard about it,” and some of the parents, he notes, do not themselves know how to read or write.

The pair says there are formidable challenges in their work. Schools are often dirty. Many lack water. Saddled by the pressures of poverty and a lack of resources, adults in Nepal are hard-pressed to engage enthusiastically with kids. The idea of helicopter parenting is entirely foreign.

 “One of the kindergarten teachers said children only learn to speak around five, the reason being that the parents don’t have time for the children and when they do, they don’t talk to them,” Livia said. “It’s benign neglect. It’s a mixture of no time and not seeing it as important, because the kids are going to grow up anyway.”

For Livia and Santosh, and the other fellows, the education is multi-pronged. They are learning about the schools and people they’re helping, and also about working together and finding common ground in spite of radically different backgrounds and worldviews.

Santosh, as a Nepali, has a native understanding of local attitudes toward change—they’ll happen eventually. Livia, on the other hand, finds herself impatient and, as she says, blustery. She wants improvements now while he’s more realistic, grounded in context, and less pessimistic about the future, Livia observed.

In the schools they complement one another, preparing lessons together and serving as one another’s translator and cultural ambassador. When Livia wanted to suggest the kids in one their schools play a game involving feet, Santosh reminded her they’re considered impure and such a game is verboten.

“It’s fascinating having this sincere cultural exchange and being able to work with people who don’t think like me,” said Livia. “Working with Santosh is challenging—working with people who are different is good. Learning how to make change—we’re still not there yet but we’re trying to improve what we can.”

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.