OPENED almost two years ago by Orphans Aid International (OAI) founder Sue van Schreven, of Queenstown, the Kiwi Himalayan Education Centre aims to give orphans, disadvantaged and refugee children a chance to go to school.
Situated in the north of India near the Bhutan border, 88 children, aged from 5 years old to intermediate school age, who previously were not in a school, were now receiving a regular education, meals and medical assistance.
OAI Invercargill charity shop manager Kathryn Casey said “because refugee children were considered stateless, they were not entitled to go to a school in India.
“They come from a variety of countries including Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and China… and because they are refugees, they have no rights.”
To help remedy the situation and because the children were basically in a “no man’s land” situation, the Indian government had gifted the land solely for the school, which was built through a combined effort by OAI with help from a New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade government grant of $24,000, Mrs Casey said.
Earlier this year, Mrs van Schreven, Mrs Casey and a team of OAI personnel and supporters revisited the Himalayan region to see how things were progressing.
“I had been there four years ago and had filmed a big piece of soil with a big hole in it. Four years later it [the school] is almost completed,” Mrs Casey said.
Five classrooms and an assembly room have been completed so far, with a kitchen yet to be built.
“The children sit on a mat to learn, as well as when they eat.”
School begins at 8am with the first intake of 44 pupils and finishes with a lunch of dal bhat (rice and lentils or potatoes), before the second intake of 44 pupils comes in for the afternoon.
“Five teachers, some local and some who have travelled from as far away as Calcutta, are paid a token payment,” Mrs Casey said.
“They have an amazing love for these kids and want to empower them to help get them out of this hopeless situation.”
Education for the children and the community is crucial in seeing families break out of the poverty cycle.
The school could cater for up to 200 children, but also needed regular support to expand, including finances to feed the pupils, to support the teachers and to pay for books and materials.
“These kids have little, for some nothing… if someone doesn’t help them, they have no hope… some exist on the streets in rags, scavenging through the rubbish.”
Mrs Casey said her husband, who also travelled to see the project, was “shocked”.
“It was the relentlessness of the poverty. It seemed everywhere we looked there was poverty… every sense was attacked.”
However, they were also both encouraged to see some of the results of her work with the organisation.
“It gave him a new understanding of what had driven me with OAI… an appreciation of the work and what motivated me to do it.”
Because many of the families don’t have enough to feed their children, all the children at the school received a meal, which worked out at 70 (New Zealand) cents each, she said.
The ongoing project still needed support, with 100% of any donations ear-marked for the school going to the project as well as additional monetary support via the OAI charity shops, Mrs Casey said.
“A lot of funding for the school has come from Southland. People like to support education, because it can be a way out of poverty.
“It’s about making a difference in children’s lives, giving them a hand up out of poverty, giving them hope.”