In 2019 I had the pleasure of travelling to Nepal with a group of travel agents for education with Intrepid Travel. What an incredible experience! Beyond the obvious excitement that comes with travelling to a new country; meeting the people, seeing the sights, tasting the food, there was a very specific “purpose” and educational component behind this particular trip with carefully selected agents from Canada and the USA. Geoff Manchester, co-founder of Intrepid Travel would also be adventuring along with us in one of his favourite countries! Little did I know that one of the areas of education for us would change my life.
Initially, I almost turned the invite down as I thought Everest and high altitude trekking weren’t for me. Then I discovered the tour I would be on visits the cities, nature and cultural sites of the Kathmandu Valley. It had some great small hikes and everything was at low altitude. Even I, as a pretty savvy travel agent, didn’t know this! I didn’t realize you could enjoy Nepal without going to higher altitudes. Now I do. And now you do too!
I accepted the invitation to go on this special agent-only trip and came out the other side, changed.
Forget Me Not is not a tourist destination. It’s not a store. There’s nothing to buy. It doesn’t provide services to tourists. It’s an organization … a very powerful one … one that I truly will never forget.
Years ago, The Intrepid Foundation partnered with an orphanage in Nepal called Twenty Girls. These girls had been in the orphanage system for four to 18 years. Having done their research, the foundation was confident that this orphanage was well run and well equipped to support these young women with suitable living quarters, healthy meals and education. All checks were in place to make sure this was a positive care facility, not one of the poorly run orphanages that were rampant in Nepal, Asia and Africa, perpetuating the cycle of abuse to orphaned children. This orphanage needed funds and the Intrepid Foundation stepped in to help.
Not long after this, an orphanage in Uganda reached out to Twenty Girls for support in reorganizing and learning how to better operate. Throughout a long process of auditing, it came to light that many of the children at the Ugandan orphanage still had living parents or relatives. It was discovered the children had been taken from their homes in various ways and were not orphans at all.
Around the same time, the girls in the Nepal orphanage had become their own close-knit family. They began to open up to one another, sharing their stories and feelings from what they remembered, if anything, of their families and past communities. Some of the girls were having dreams, others had encountered people in Kathmandu, strangers, who seemed to know them.
Eventually one of the young women spoke out to staff at the orphanage in Kathmandu. Despite staff being threatened by organizations and the government to stay quiet, they spoke up and began an investigation to learn where these twenty girls had come from.
With few paper records from their past orphanage stays, fading or non-existent memories of their families and often no information about their birth-homes, it was a struggle to retrace each girl’s history. Not only was it difficult from a paperwork perspective, as you can imagine it was also a delicate situation as the girls were remembering bits and pieces of life they believed no longer existed. Most of them had been in the orphanage system for many years, suffering mental, physical and sexual abuse, living in deplorable conditions and being forced into child labour either at the orphanages or on the streets. For years they had been told they were orphans, that their parents and families no longer existed, that they were alone or unwanted.
Learning that the orphans weren’t necessarily orphans, put the Intrepid Foundation in an awkward spot. They couldn’t pull their support and see these girls without funding or send them back into the corrupt orphanage system, but they couldn’t continue to support an orphanage where the children were victims of orphanage trafficking.
A large audit and investigation began into the operation of the orphanage, where the girls came from to determine what had happened. Little by little, with funding from the Intrepid Foundation, cooperation from the Nepali Government and the incredible efforts of child welfare and social workers, the stories began to be revealed and families of these ‘orphaned’ girls were slowly, but surely being found. In the end, 18 of the 20 girls from this orphanage were reunited with their families after many years apart.
Through all of this, a new organization was born, called Forget Me Not. This new organization would never again operate as an orphanage, but instead would focus on child welfare and reunification of families.
At Forget Me Not, they proudly have a Change Makers Squad made up of five teens and young adults who were part of the orphanage system; four girls from the original Twenty Girls and one young man who spent several years in orphanages. These young Change Makers are bravely sharing their stories, spreading the word, educating their communities, raising money and standing up to governments, pressuring them to make changes to child welfare acts and to shut down improperly run orphanages.
Each of the change-makers stood in front of us to tell us their role in the squad and their dreams for their future. Anisha, only about 17 years old, shared part of her story and brought me to tears.
Anisha and her sisters were taken to an orphanage when she was very young. Her dad had decided to give her and her sisters up and paid for them to have a ‘better life.’ In reality, he had wanted boys, not girls. Boys were perceived as more valuable in society.
Her parents had paid a handler to give them a better education and better life. The parents were tricked, as millions are, into trafficking their children to the orphanage system. While the parents believed they were doing something good for their daughters, as soon as they were out of sight, the children were taken hundreds of miles away and placed in illegal orphanages where physical, mental and sexual abuse (still, today) run rampant. They lived in unclean conditions with little access to food or water and many were forced into child labour or the sex trade.
It’s easy for us to judge and say ‘don’t give your kids to strangers’, but it can be compared to paying for your kids to go to boarding school. Traffickers are well-dressed, educated, well-spoken and professional. They are friendly and seem trustworthy. They are offering better education and a better life for these children. It is a professional operation. It’s easy to fall for their charm, but never an easy decision for parents to give their children up.
It’s easy to place blame on the parents, but let’s get real for a minute and talk about you and me, as tourists, and how this is our fault too. Unknowingly, tourists are helping grow the orphanage trafficking trade. The more donations that orphanages receive, the more orphanages open and traffickers need children to fill the beds. Children are being stolen from the streets and lured from their parents with promises of a better future. The money tourists donate to orphanages rarely trickles down to the children that it was meant to help. Instead, it just creates more demand from the traffickers who keep getting richer. It’s heartbreaking. We are part of the problem and we can be part of the solution!
Children from these illegal orphanages are also being sent into the streets to beg for money from tourists, never keeping a penny for themselves, for fear of further abuse. While it is so very hard not to give a begging child money, I can’t stress enough the importance of this in breaking the cycle. The only way for these children to get off the streets is if there is no money for them to earn there. We must stop giving money to children on the streets immediately. The traffickers have money to take care of the children, they are choosing not to. When you give money to a child on the streets, you are not helping to feed that child, you are helping continue the cycle of orphanage trafficking. Let this sink in.
After moving between orphanages, each of Anisha’s sisters was eventually adopted by two foreign families. Anisha continued to be moved from orphanage to orphanage until she was taken to the Twenty Girls orphanage, supported by the Intrepid Foundation. Here she found a sisterhood of 19 other girls. The girls became family and began to talk about their dreams and memories.
Anisha was one of the original 20 who was reunited with her family, including younger brothers whom she had never met. She also reunited with each of her sisters who were adopted and currently live abroad.
If hearing her tell the story of her difficult life, and the emotional rollercoaster of reuniting with her long-lost family wasn’t enough … just one year after they were reunited, her dad fell ill and passed away. She choked up a little as she explained that she never got to tell him how she felt.
Not a year after her dad’s passing, her mom also passed away, leaving her and her two brothers orphaned, with no able relatives to care for them. This time she was truly an orphan. Being underage and not able to legally care for her brothers, they were placed in a legal orphanage in Kathmandu, where she can visit them regularly while she continues to finish high school.
Anisha bravely told us not only her story, but her dreams of becoming a lawyer and reuniting with her brothers to all live in one house as a family when she can support them.
My heart absolutely explodes with heartbreak and admiration for this strong girl who has endured so much emotional turmoil in her short life. Yet, she presses forward to pursue her dreams and take care of her younger brothers.
The Intrepid Foundation supports the vision of Forget Me Not to fund the long and arduous process of tracking children’s families and reuniting them when possible. This means supporting the Change Makers’ efforts to raise awareness, educate the public and influence change. It also supports the counselling services needed for the children while they are dealing with the emotional turmoil they’ve lived through. While research and hard work aren’t very sexy or Instagram-worthy, it is the right thing to do and drives Intrepid’s mission, through their entire business, of Purpose Beyond Profit.
The visit to Forget me Not is a day that is etched into my heart. It has inspired me to look for ways to give back and to never underestimate the power that travel has to change lives; mine, my client’s and that of the communities we visit.
Each year I choose a travel charity to donate to instead of sending Christmas cards to my clients. I feel the money is better spent making a difference in the lives of women and children around the world rather than paper and stamps in Canada. In 2019, I donated to Forget Me Not.