One person’s adversity brings hope to manyA Norwegian girl raised in Gorkha 55 years ago has inspired special needs children in Norway and Nepal to help each other
Asbjørn Voreland first travelled to Nepal overland from Norway in 1964 to work as a teacher at Ampipal in Gorkha district. There, he and his wife Mia raised their daughters, including Helen and Marianne.
Marianne contracted encephalitis when she was one year old, and has lived with a mental disability ever since. Because their mother was so busy taking care of Marianne, Helen grew up playing hide and seek and flying kites with neighhbourhood children in Ampipal, learning to speak and feel Nepali.
The parents subsequently moved to Kathmandu, where they employed Tulsa Sharma to take care of Marianne. Both were 17, and the companionship inspired Tulsa for her life’s work with special needs children in Nepal.
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“Marianne needed a lot of care, but she was gentle and always smiling because of the love she got,” Tulsa recalls. “This motivated me to do something for Nepali children with similar afflictions who may not be so lucky. I could imagine what it would have been like for me if I were in her shoes.”
Mental disorder is still such a stigma in Nepali society that there are cases of children being locked up in attics, and mothers blamed for sins in a previous life. Families with children who suffer from mental afflictions are deemed to be cursed, some cannot rent rooms, and suffer ostracisation.
Nearly 30 years after her life-changing experience taking care of the Norwegian teenager, Tulsa Sharma now runs the Asha Bal Bikash Sewa (ABBS) special needs daycare in Lalitpur for children with intellectual and physical disabilities.
From the outside, the facility looks like any other middle school in Nepal. But unlike other shelters, it is filled with laughter, the children hug their teachers, songs stream out of open upper windows, the classroom walls are decorated with colourful posters, and students are all busy making things, or scribbling at their tables.
The ABBS centre has 80 students, with as many others connected through home visits. It also runs a facility in Chitwan and a community-based rehabilitation centre in Rukum. The students mostly have three of the 10 disorder categories designated by the government: autism, Down's Syndrome, muscular dystrophy, or have multi-disabilities.
Although the centres are supposed to only accept children up to 16, they have much older people who would not get the proper care at home, or do not have the skills for society to be more accepting of them.
One of the children who was brought to the ABBS centre a few years ago was a four-year-old boy with Down's Syndrome who had been locked up in a storeroom behind the kitchen by his family. He was not allowed into the rest of the home, and even the pets were treated better.
“I held the boy in my lap, and I remember the mother started crying because she said it was the first time someone besides herself had ever touched her child,” Tulsa recalls, her eyes tearing up.
She adds, “I realised that caring for these children means support for their mothers, they get more time for themselves. We train parents in how to deal with children with disabilities, and also give the children basic life skills to improve their quality of life when they leave here.”
Nearly 7,000km away, Helen Eikeland was visiting her sister Marianne at a daycare centre in the Norwegian town of Måneglytt earlier this month.
Marianne is now 55, but has the mental age of a one-year-old, and is visibly excited to see her sister, smiling affectionately. But it is when Helen starts speaking to her in Nepali that Marianne suddenly goes quiet as she concentrates to catch every sound of a faraway language of their childhood together in Nepal.
“मेरी बैनी कस्ती राम्री। हेर त तिमीलाई भेट्न नेपालदेखि आउनु भएको छ।” Helen says, as her sister listens intently. (My sister is so pretty. Look, someone is here to see you all the way from Nepal.)
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The daycare centre teaches handicraft and other basic skills to people with intellectual difficulties. Many are adults, and for them it is like going to work every day. The coasters, mats, coffee mugs, napkin holders they make are sold in the facility’s gift shop.
In a vocational school for those with special needs in the nearby town of Øvrebø, students had just returned from a visit to the ABBS centre in Nepal, and were excited to share their experience with others.
For the past 12 years, the Øvrebø Blue Cross special vocational school has been sending groups of students to Tulsa Sharma’s centres in Nepal and raised funds to support young Nepalis with mental disabilities. Tulsa herself was trained in special needs education at these facilities in Måneglytt and Øvrebø.
The Norwegian students at the centre have faced challenges in their own lives, and the Nepal visits have had a special impact on their learning and self-worth, says the school’s Ingvill Vik Dunsæd, who was also in Nepal with her students earlier this year.
One of them was Monica Kinnapel, who had a drug and alcohol problem as a teenager, and went through one year of rehabilitation before being enrolled at the Øvrebø school, also helping out at the daycare to look after Marianne.
Because of this Nepal connection, she joined a trip to Kathmandu, and says the visit to the ABBS centre transformed her. “I was spoilt, was an egotist and selfish, but in Nepal I saw how you can be happy. The Nepalis we met were genuine, they taught me to be a nicer person,” Kinnapel said.
She is now married, has a baby girl and got a job as a nurse. “I will teach what I learnt in Nepal about life to my children,” she said.
Helga Sjøfn had ADHD and remembers how welcoming everyone was at the ABBS centre in Nepal. “I was such a brat before, and I have become a much nicer person. Nepal changed me. It made me more compassionate, and showed me I could also be important for someone else,” said Sjøfn. The Nepal experience had such lasting impact on Sjøfn’s life that she rolled up her sleeve to show a ‘
नमस्ते’ tattoo on her wrist.
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Vik Dunsæd says these stories of transformation from the students inspired her to take new batches every year to ABBS in Nepal. She and Tulsa both agree that the interactions between Norwegian and Nepali students at ABBS in Kathmandu provides valuable exposure to both.
“We do not go to Nepal to change Nepal, we go there to let Nepal change us,” says Vik Dunsæd who is heavily involved in raising money through concerts, bakery sales, lotteries and other events in and around Marianne’s hometown of Vennesla.
This is a story of how a couple from a corner of Norway raised a girl in a remote village in Nepal, and how her life set off a chain reaction, so that many years later people in Norway and Nepal are still helping those with special needs in each other’s countries.
Marianne’s sister Helen was born in Gorkha, and looked after their father Asbjørn as he struggled with Alzheimer’s in a hospice in Vennesla till his death last year. His memory was gone, but he could still speak Nepali.
Besides teaching at university in Norway, Helen is also involved in improving the quality of Nepal’s education system and visits Kathmandu often. She is convinced her sister’s story is proof of the power of compassion. In fluent Nepali, she says: “For someone who is so dependent on others, Marianne has helped many more become less dependent.”
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