Once a year, Amurtel volunteers go to Nepal to shop for our annual fundraiser, the International Boutique. It has been bothering me that we would come, shop and leave—without doing anything for the local people. Our shipper Tashi is Tibetan and his family lives in Jampa Ling, a refugee camp outside of Pokhara. Off and on for the past three years we have discussed with him ways Amurtel might work in Nepal.
This year as we were sitting over tea together Tashi asked about our work in Haiti, and as I was sharing with him the success of our micro finance program, his face lit up. ‘This is something that would be very helpful for the women in our camp,’ he said. He immediately began to lay out a whole proposal, until I stopped him and reminded him one of the basic tenants of our development work was the concept of partnerships. I told Tashi it was not up to him or I sitting in a café in Katmandu to decide what the women in Jampa Ling needed. Rather it would be better if we met with the women there and explored with them what they needed. We then looked at each other and almost at the same time said- ‘let’s go to Pokhara tomorrow.’ Tashi arranged a car and very early the next morning we set off for Jampa Ling.
I have to say I thought the worst roads in the world were in Haiti. I stand corrected. Currently in first place now for the world’s worst roads are those in and around Katmandu. The road we were on, which is the one main highway in the country, was really a slalom course with crater-sized holes in the middle and sheer drop offs down steep mountains on the side. What had years before been a barely passible two lane road for small cars and scooters was now filled with large buses, transport trucks, and everything else that could possibly be wheeled. The blue haze of exhaust from leaded gas hung over everything, often times blocking the spectacular views of Annapurna and other Himalayan peaks in the distance. Six and a half bone crunching hours later we arrived at the camp.
As a Tibetan Refugee camp, Jampa Ling is unique in many ways. For one thing, it was set up for the survivors and families of the Chushi Gundruk, a fierce Tibetan Militia who fought for Tibetan freedom from the late 1950’s through the mid 1970s. I felt a great sense of awe when Tashi introduced me to a number of old warriors, including his father. These men had the sweetest smiles, constantly fingering their prayer beads and relaxing in the sunlight. But an unmistakable sense of no-nonsense still shaped their faces.
One of the most inspiring parts of the camp is the ‘senior center.’ This is a U-shaped building that provides housing for those older people who had no family to stay with. There are a number of rooms where one or two elderly residents would stay, with a common prayer room, dining room and lots of outside meeting areas. A cook and two aids live on premises. The whole center is supported by the other community. When I arrived, many of the men were sitting together outside, playing cards. There was also a group of women sitting under a tree weaving on small looms and chatting. Many of the men carried visible scars from the war, and all were very warm and welcoming. I was struck by what a good model this is for caring for older members of a community.
While touring the camp, Tashi’s young son Tenzir pointed out a ‘dying house.’ It was empty and when I asked Tashi about this, he said ‘ business has been slow, so we closed it down.’ Although I was moved that the camp had what I thought was a hospice center, I was totally at sea—with so many elderly in the camp, how could ‘ business be slow’?? Finally after a few more questions, Tashi explained that they used to have a weaving shop in the camp and the ‘dyeing house’ was to dye wool. I laughed and had a good reminder of how simple words can so easily lead to misunderstanding!
Unemployment is extremely high in Nepal, and even more so for Tibetan refugees living in camps. Many of the younger men have moved to the city to look for work and send their earnings back to support parents and children. I had an opportunity to meet with the young women in the camp, who were eager to explore ways they could contribute to the family and the community. We discussed what skills they had, and what they could envision themselves doing to create income. We looked at woven hand bags, sleeping mats, sweaters, and other things the women made. Tsering Chenga, one of the younger women, had been making very cute animals and dolls from wool she spun. I fell in love with the stuffed pandas, zebras, elephants and pigs. After discussing all the possibilities with the women in the group, it was decided that Tsering Chenga could teach the others how to make the animals and dolls, creating a viable small industry for them. What they would need from Amurtel would be seed money to buy the wool and a few other supplies, and assistance if finding markets to sell the finished product. This is exactly the kind of program Amurtel likes to partner with—it is self-governed, empowering for the participants and respectful of local culture. Before leaving the camp, I purchased all the animals the Tsering Chenga had made with the hopes we can create enough demand that this small business can take off.
Our biggest challenge right now is finding markets where the women can sell their finished product. We welcome any suggestions and can discuss this with stores, e-retailers, etc. And of course we still need to raise about $2000 for the project to become viable.