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Peace Corps Cleft Palate Project Continued by Three Heroic Women and Web-Site Jewelry Business

My heart is filled with admiration for three women whose courage and dedication have helped to change the lives of cleft palate children and young students.

They live in Nepal, one of the world’s most beautiful countries. It has been called a “Tiny Mountain Kingdom” and is filled with raw natural beauty. Nepal’s crown jewel, Mt. Everest, lies among the highest peaks of the Himalayas stretching the length of the country. Despite Nepal’s ancient temples, and breathtaking vistas it is undergoing a brutal civil war in which an estimated thirteen thousand have been killed in the last nine years. The group that has suffered most are villagers outside Kathmandu. The capital is Kathmandu and is very different from the rural areas. It is a city that was noted in a new publication “The City Book” as being the fourteenth top city in the world. But when one leaves the borders of Kathmandu it is a very primitive world, much as it was eighty years ago.

I first met Lela when I went to Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1996. She was from a local village. Sweet and very shy, she tended to erupt in fits of giggles whenever the spotlight focused on her. She had an equivalent of a third grade education, like many of her peers. Seventy-two of the women in Nepal are illiterate. Lela and another woman took the first group of children in need of cleft palate surgery and their guardians to the hospital. It took the small group of twelve people seventeen hours in an old bus over tiny mountain roads to arrive at the hospital. One father carried his three-year old daughter for three days to meet the bus to begin the journey with the others. Another child came with her grandmother who wore a pair of plastic flip flops on her feet.

Lela quickly took charge at the start of the first trip. She and her husband Purna have continued the program over the years. Lela has improved her own education and changed the lives of over 250 children. She finds children hidden away in remote villages who suffer the humiliation of their appearance as well as being considered “evil” because they “had to be very bad in their last life to appear with a deformity in this life”. Nepal is a Hindu/Buddhist country that holds reincarnation as a literal truth.

As the war in Nepal escalated the Maoist “People’s Liberation Army” began to take hold in Lela’s far western home. Slowly the aid agencies and health services in their area began to leave. Lela, with the help of Purna, has continued the trips through war torn villages with buses being searched by both the government and Maoist armies as they passed through territories held by each army. Lela carried the money to pay for lodging and food for the entire group in her bra as the banks were as unsafe as the roads. Lela and her husband continue to bring children into Kathmandu for surgery despite the peril.

They are funded by Mahila, www.mahilajewelry.com, a company that imports hand crafted sterling silver jewelry. I started the company upon my return home from Nepal 9 years ago, to continue to help support the children.

Nirmala, our second heroine, manages the education program that meets the needs of eighteen high school students in the town of Surkhet and several college and technical students in Kathmandu. In a time when it is dangerous to take a political stand, she is outspoken and fiercely protective of the young women who frequently have no other advocate. Nirmala has appointed herself the mother hen and guardian watch dog of these young women. Sometimes she has taken homeless students in under her own roof.

No one knows the status of needy children in the area as well and few are as dedicated in helping them get a leg up and out of certain poverty with a guarantee of little or no control over their own life. Nirmala stretches the purse strings of our program trying to help as many students as she can. She too carries money to pay for the scholarships in her bra on the long bus ride from Kathmandu. In Nepal social work is not a profession. The definition of a “social worker” is someone who does good works. Nirmala, in the truest sense, is a Social Worker.

The last heroine is very different from Lela and Nirmala. Meghna was educated in India. She is a bright, worldly young woman who is as at home in a pair of jeans as a business dress. Few women in her country have matched her achievements. She and a friend own their own company, Weaves and Blends. They have highly skilled weavers who use wooden hand looms to weave incredibly soft fibers into scarves and other clothing. They show their work at high end fashion shows in Paris, London and New York.

Not only does she hold a complex business together dealing with searching out quality materials, managing highly skilled weavers, anticipating fluctuating markets and taste, and import/export issues but she also meets the most difficult challenge which is running a business in a country that is consumed by war. On top of this staggering schedule, Meghna takes her “free” time to coordinate hospital visits, secure hotel rooms for the parents of cleft children, interview students wishing to enter a technical program or college and keeps complicated financial records that would impress any CPA. The most telling thing about Meghna is that she takes her precious time to greet the young patients in the hospital with ice cream.

To most of the children Meghna, Lela and Nirmala offer them their first taste of a better life! These two programs are small and affect people whose lives we will never hear about. But these three women are truly unsung heroes.

By Maite Burn

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