Nepal’s forgotten children

(James) Prior to leaving the UK we’d spoken with a friend of the family who happened to be a patron of a small charity in Nepal (one we’d admittedly never heard of) called the Esther Benjamins Trust (EBT) that did work of some sort with Nepali children. As we’d neared Nepal, we’d decided that if we could, we’d pop in and say hello and so initial contact had been made with the Chief Executive, Philip Holmes. Once we arrived in Kathmandu he invited us to meet for a coffee so he could explain what it was exactly that the EBT does (Fabian came along too, always keen to get human interest stories from the countries he visits), and the following day we went to visit the beneficiaries of EBT’s work. It was an utterly inspiring experience, particularly for me who, having worked in the NGO sector, might have been slightly more de-sensitised to such things.

Philip’s story is extremely inspiring. Following the tragic death of his wife, he founded the Esther Benjamins Trust in her memory. Philip had been a dentist in the British Army so had no experience of the charity sector but, regardless, went off to Nepal to try and help the country’s under privileged children. He invested his own Army pension (working for the first three years without any funding or income) into what quickly became his one man mission. Looking to find a niche area that wasn’t being addressed by others, he focused on helping Nepal’s forgotten circus children. These children (80% of which are girls) are sold by poor families in Nepal when they are about five years old to agents and other middle men for just a few dollars. They are then trafficked across the border into India and the middle east where some go on to become sex slaves. The majority, however, end up working in Indian circuses where they are trained as performers, live in very poor conditions and are constantly abused, either physically or sexually, by their owners. Once they reach an age where they are no longer of any use, they are released on to the streets where they are left to fend for themselves. Initially the EBT looked to try to simply help these children to get out of the circuses but quickly recognised the scale of the problem and so rapidly expanded their mission objectives (more through the utter dedication of their staff than any increase in funding).

Nowadays, they launch regular ‘raids’ on circuses in India which they do with the help of the local police, doctors, psychologists, lawyers etc, rescuing dozens of children at a time. Having undergone medical and psychological evaluations and given statements to the police (all with legal representation), they are taken back to Nepal – no simple task as those arrested often have ties to local gangsters who vow revenge and make very real threats. Once in Nepal, they are taken to care homes run solely by EBT where they are given a safe place to live, the choice of a school education or vocational training (most choose to go to school), and a chance to enjoy the childhood that they’ve been denied. The earliest rescued children are now approaching eighteen years old and, despite entering the education several years late, have completely their high school education and are about the leave the confines of Esther Benjamins to make their own way in the world. A few of them have shown such promise and potential that (following more focused tutoring provided by Philip) they have been approved to go into further specialist higher education with a view to becoming doctors and engineers.

The EBT’s work, however, doesn’t end there. Philip was determined not to just spend his time picking up the broken pieces of this trade in children so, having completed each raid, they gather intelligence, through statements from the children and the circus owners, to build a better picture of the various networks and systems operating within the trade. Once collated, this information not only provides insight into the other circuses for future raids, but also allows the EBT to target those agents and middlemen who ‘bought’ the children in the first place. Once arrested, the EBT ensures that they are prosecuted. To date, fifteen agents in Nepal have been arrested and sentences handed down of up to 20 years.

EBT has to date rescued 687 children directly and indirectly and meets the needs of 130 children in full time residential care. What is more amazing are the staggeringly small resources that all this has been accomplished with. Most funding comes from private donors (like you and me) who make monthly donations or do fundraising events, and a little bit comes from the odd charitable trust. Rather depressingly, nothing comes from the big international donors such as the British Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), the European Union or any of the United Nations’ myriad of aid organisations – UNICEF included. To the vast majority of charities in the UK, these donors give hundreds of millions of dollars each year, but it would seem that the valiant efforts of EBT don’t qualify for any funding at all despite their incredible ability to achieve so much with so few resources. Having worked in the charity sector and dealt with some of the donor organisations, I can only assume that so small is EBT and its operation on the scale of things that it simply doesn’t warrant or justify the time and resources of some nameless desk officer in the regional grant giving departments of these institutions. If that it is the case (and I’m not saying it necessarily is), it’s pretty depressing to say the least as, despite all the budgetary cuts made to government departments during this recession, DFID has actually had its budget increased, has lots of money and, in my experience, always had money available for the ‘right’ (or the most politically beneficial) causes.

Following our meeting with Philip we agreed  that we would come to visit the charity so we could see the EBT’s work first hand, so the next day we met one of the charity’s current crop of volunteers, Esther Raubold , who had kindly agreed to show us around. Given the lack of any real funding, EBT relies heavily on volunteers, having had 49 pass through Nepal in 2010. It does this by approaching various industry magazines and newspapers and asks if anyone would be interested in taking a sabbatical. Anyone can apply regardless of whether they have any specialist skills (there’s ever a shortage of things to be done), but certain skills are of particular interest. At our first stop we visited a work shop where girls were under the tutelage of a Scottish lady called Nicola Turnbull. Back in the UK, Nicola works as a self employed high end jeweller, but having seen EBT mentioned in a trade magazine, was now passing on some of her considerable skills to some of the older girls, most of whom were deaf. At the time of our visit, the girls also had amassed a considerable number of handmade Christmas cards in various designs, which they hoped would be sold to raise further funds for the EBT.

Next, we were taken to visit one of EBT’s homes  just to the south of Kathmandu. In his particular village there were two homes, one for boys, the other for the girls. With time getting a bit tight, we decided that we’d visit the girls’ home. The house itself was a large detached building with four floors. As we approached we were greeted by some of the girls playing volleyball who stopped their game to take us inside their home. We were then shown around the house, popping our heads through some doors and being invited in to others. The girls live in 10 bed dormitories which looked for all the world like they would in any western girl’s room. It was heartening to see that despite all the abuse and suffering they must have endured (and all the corresponding issues one might expect), their walls were filled with posters of Nepali and Indian pop stars and their favourite TV stars. I had braced myself for a slightly cooler and more guarded reception in the girls home, (after all, one could hardly blame them for viewing any man with a certain amount of suspicion or even outright hostility) and had stepped back to allow Em to lead but all either of us felt was utter warmth and friendliness. It’s a credit to both the sheer mental resilience of the children and the work of the Esther Benjamins trust that any of the children are able to reintegrate themselves into society. That’s not to say some of the children don’t come back with real problems, but the EBT ensures that each child receives bespoke treatment they require to meet their needs. The result of this monumental effort is that, thanks to the frankly herculean efforts of Philip and his team, the Esther Benjamins Trust has rescued and housed  so many children that would otherwise be living in appalling conditions and being subjected to, on a daily basis, shocking levels of abuse, and with a future that held little but the prospect of being abandoned onto the streets on India when they were no longer of any value to their owners. Instead they live happily in a secure and loving environment where each one will get the chance to recapture a lost childhood, develop and have the chance to reach their full potential. 

It’s fair to say that Em and I felt privileged to have been given an insight into such a worthy cause. We were genuinely humbled by what we found, and utterly inspired by what one man, along with a small, but dedicated team has managed to achieve. If you were thinking about setting up some sort of regular charitable donation or doing some sort of fundraising event like a sponsored run, walk etc this year, all we can say is you’d be hard pressed to find a more worthy cause. If you are interested in finding out more about the Esther Benjamins Trust or doing a fundraising event or even volunteering with them you can click here to visit their website (it’s about to be given an overhaul). Alternatively you can find a link to them on our links page.

5 Responses to “Nepal’s forgotten children”

  1. Mike Peaker says:

    J & E, So glad that you made it to the EBT, especially given the impression it made on you. A brilliant write up – very well done. Can only help the cause. You will be pleased to know that the two of you made an equally good impression on Philip!!

  2. The Littlewoods says:

    Hi guys, yet another first class write up. you must really give some thought to either opening your own company advising punters on traveling or go into print. It would be a waste if you did not capitalise on this on your return. It really is worth the effort.
    Take care, D,S,D&M.

  3. Jackson says:

    Wow this Philip sounds saintly. What a great job he is doing. I wonder if by donating directly to EBT if the money isn’t used more efficiently than when received by big household name charities, where I hear a lot is lost in administration and …..sending flyers out.
    James you’d probably have a good opinion on this?

  4. Jackson says:

    hey, just been looking at the EBT website. Frightening and inspiring at the same time. There are some good archived articles from The Times there. Recommended reading

  5. Mama/Kate says:

    Just received a letter from Nana. ‘ James’ description of the charity which so impressed him makes me think he would make a splendid organiser – in charge of some charitable organisation.’ Another candidate for sainthood? She also comments that it’s a wonder you don’t get more upset tummies from eating ‘all that strange food UNhygenically prepared!!’
    By the way, she also wondered if there was some blog missing as nothing was mentioned of your journey to Thailand to meet us.Yes, i have explained how it works but do you think it might be a good idea to head up the date of each experience?

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