Thursday 8 December 2016

Strictly learning: the trip that changed Laura Whitmore's life

Her life has been defined by hard work and opportunity. But on a recent trip to Nepal, Laura Whitmore realised how the good fortune of where she was born has impacted on the choices available to her. 'Don't forget us', the children of Nepal pleaded with the TV presenter, jewellery designer and now ballroom dancer. And she won't forget them, or their hopes and dreams and determination despite all the odds, and their inspiring vision of a new future

Published 05/09/2016 | 02:30

National Campaign Ambassador for #Emergency Lessons, Laura Whitmore in Kathmandu, Nepal at the beginning of her field trip with Unicef to assess the devastation the 2015 earthquake caused to schools there. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
National Campaign Ambassador for #Emergency Lessons, Laura Whitmore in Kathmandu, Nepal at the beginning of her field trip with Unicef to assess the devastation the 2015 earthquake caused to schools there. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura chats to members of the Shrijanshil Child Club in Melamchi, Sindhupalchowk District, Nepal. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura with single mother Sitha Adhikari in the temporary shelther the mum of two has been living in for over a year. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura gets some tips on dancing from the girls at Shakti-Samuha group in a Kathamandu slum. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
One of the little girls who attends Ainselukharka High School, 'The School in the Clouds', during a morning exercise session. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura watches assembly at Ainselukharka High School in Sindhupalchowk District. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms

Two things have defined my life so far - hard work and opportunity. It's difficult to know which of those things has been the more important. For the young people I met in Nepal this summer, opportunities are hard to come by, and the detrimental effect that will have on their future is all too clear.

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Long before Strictly Come Dancing, or I'm a Celebrity; way back before the Brits, the Baftas and MTV, I remember being absolutely certain that I could carve a career for myself in television. Initially, I had wanted to study acting, and I then contemplated journalism. Convincing my dad that a job in the creative industry was a legitimate career was another thing, and studying for a BA in journalism at DCU was a happy medium.

But that education was just a jumping- off point. What has really brought me to where I am today is dedication and commitment. Yet having that springboard of knowledge has really stood to me. I've always believed that if I worked hard enough to follow my dream, I could make it happen. My recent trip to visit earthquake survivors in Nepal, with Unicef and the EU's emergency humanitarian fund Echo, forced me to confront another truth - it wasn't just dedication and commitment that helped me achieve my dream, it was also good fortune. What I learned when I went back to school in Nepal was that my life has been hugely influenced by where I was born.

When an earthquake struck Nepal in April, 2015, over 8,000 schools were wiped out in 45 seconds. That's all the schools in Ireland: gone, twice over. The effect of that is overwhelming, especially for a country that is already struggling. All of the research suggests that if children affected by emergencies, such as natural disaster or conflict, fall out of education, they are more likely to be recruited as child soldiers, to be married off as child brides, or to end up in forced labour. That's before we even talk about the impact of never reaching their full potential has for them personally, and for their communities and economies.

Laura chats to members of the Shrijanshil Child Club in Melamchi, Sindhupalchowk District, Nepal. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura chats to members of the Shrijanshil Child Club in Melamchi, Sindhupalchowk District, Nepal. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms

The teenagers I met in Nepal were all ambitious. They all want careers. They saw world-class professionals in action as their country tried to deal with the trauma of natural disaster. Now they dream of becoming doctors, civil engineers, social workers and aid workers. But I will never forget the silence that fell over a room in a Kathmandu slum when 16-year-old Kopila broke down in front of me and a group of her friends, admitting that, because of where she lives, she will likely never achieve her dream of becoming a doctor.

As I sat there and tried to motivate her and her classmates, telling them that any dream is possible, I felt sick in my stomach. Kopila was right; she doesn't have the same opportunities that I had, because of something she had no control over - the country in which she was born.

Everything I saw in Nepal underlined for me the importance of prioritising education for children who become caught up in emergencies. We are used to thinking about providing water, shelter and medicine in crises, but putting education at the top of that list is going to require a mind shift. Currently, only 2pc of humanitarian aid goes to crisis education. The EU spends 4pc on education in emergencies, and would like to see others do the same.

Nepal has always faced challenges, some not too dissimilar to challenges faced in Ireland - domestic abuse, alcoholism and forced labour are common themes I heard about as I travelled through Sindhupalchowk District, one of the areas worst affected by the earthquake. Those challenges are caused by poverty and the difficulty of living in 'a vertical country'. And while this beautiful country, rich in natural resources but poor in economic terms, is doing its best to modernise, that development was kicked back several years by disaster.

It was well over a year on from the 2015 earthquake when I arrived in Nepal, but what I realised pretty quickly was that this emergency is far from over.

One-third of the 9,000 people who lost their lives were children. Homes, health posts and schools were ruined; millions of people were forced from their homes. That situation was exacerbated by political tensions in the region and a winter of petrol and gas shortages, which forced even more people from their homes.

Laura with single mother Sitha Adhikari in the temporary shelther the mum of two has been living in for over a year. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura with single mother Sitha Adhikari in the temporary shelther the mum of two has been living in for over a year. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms

Parts of the country remain at high risk of another earthquake. Unicef has been working in Nepal for 40 years. They view the threat to be so real, the first thing the team did at the airport was to give me a whistle to carry in my pocket. At first, I laughed. The situation was so alien to me. But it was no joke. I was instructed to use it to call for help, in the event of a quake. That might seem over-the-top, but in fact I did experience an aftershock while I was in Nepal. Fortunately for me, I was making my way up a really bad mountain road at the time, and I didn't even feel it. For the locals, it was just the latest in dozens of tremors they have all lived through.

Children in Nepal have risen to the challenges presented by emergency, embracing the new changes and becoming community activists. The first and absolute best example of that came right at the start of my visit.

It was day one, and I was about to experience the reality of road travel in Nepal, which has made me appreciate the ease of the winding roads to Dingle. We drove five hours out of Kathmandu to visit the Srijanshil Child Club in Melamchi, and I was shocked to be told we had only covered about 60 kilometres. I was visiting during the monsoon, when roads are regularly flooded - and since many of the roads are only dirt to begin with, you can imagine what torrential rain does to them.

In the village I was going to, 85pc of homes were destroyed in the earthquake.

At the Child Club, I saw hard evidence of the benefits of bringing teenagers together. The group performed a play they had written about child marriage. I was stunned by their hard-core depiction of drunken adults and domestic violence.

Afterwards, they told me the story of how they had managed to stop an underage girl from a nearby village from being married off by her family. They said they'd pulled it off simply by approaching the girl's father to remind him that regardless of tradition, it is against the law in Nepal for children to be married. They encouraged him to keep his daughter in school instead. Guess what? The parents changed their minds.

Laura gets some tips on dancing from the girls at Shakti-Samuha group in a Kathamandu slum. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura gets some tips on dancing from the girls at Shakti-Samuha group in a Kathamandu slum. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms

Srijanshil Child Club regularly goes into communities and puts on plays about common issues such as this one, and child labour, in the hopes of bringing about change. All of these children were affected by the earthquake.

So they are playwrights, actors, psycho-social counsellors and activists - what next, I wondered.

But lesson one had made its impact: school isn't just about learning. For kids traumatised by something such as an earthquake - seeing loved ones crushed, unable to find their families for days/weeks, no shelter, no food or water - it's where they will find psycho-social support. Unicef and the EU help provide psychology training for teachers, but it is often the children themselves who take that learning and provide the support.

As I passed through the village, middle-aged woman Sitha Adhikari invited me to come into her home. I was apprehensive going in, as I didn't want her to feel any anxiety about having strangers with cameras enter her home and ask her personal questions. But she was warm and welcoming, and really wanted to share her story.

Sitha is a single mother who has been living with her two sons in a temporary shelter since her home was destroyed in the earthquake. One of her sons is 13, and still in school, the other is fully grown, and has come home to help her rebuild. To support her family, Sitha runs a shop from her home. Her makeshift home is dark and damp, with only a tin roof to protect her from monsoon season. In the Nepalese heat, the small space is stuffy and almost unbearable to stay in. She has smudged photographs of her family and dead husband stuck up on the wall - she managed to salvage them after her house was destroyed by the earthquake.

All of the people I met in Nepal shared one characteristic: they were all more worried about their neighbours than they were about themselves. Over and over, we saw that resilience. 'I'm OK. We're coping, but really you would want to see the village down the road'. Not too different to how we Irish react to personal trauma.

One of the little girls who attends Ainselukharka High School, 'The School in the Clouds', during a morning exercise session. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
One of the little girls who attends Ainselukharka High School, 'The School in the Clouds', during a morning exercise session. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms

In a rare and raw moment, Sitha was brave enough to let me see her vulnerability. She became very upset as she described the difficulty of living in a shack for a year. As she sobbed, I wondered if I should give her some privacy, but she wanted us to stay. To understand. I could feel her emotions, her anger, her sadness piercing through her skin, and the tears came trickling down my cheeks. This moment made everything so real.

At a nearby transit home, we were warned we would have to put our cameras away. Photographs are not allowed here, for reasons of child protection. So I can't show you a picture of beautiful 14-year-old Sitevhu, who sang a song for me.

Transit homes like this one exist so that children who have become separated from their families have a safe place to go, while trained agencies like the group that runs this home work to reunite families.

The corrugated-iron shed where I met Sitevhu was divided into two rooms. Three local women look after about 20 children in these two small rooms. The children eat, sleep, study and socialise in the tiny space. As I sat cross-legged on the damp floor, it started to rain outside. Remember how I said it was monsoon? The noise of the downpour was deafening. Someone ran to rescue the shoes we had left on the doorstep, while one small boy jumped up to grab a bucket for the leak from the roof.

Sitevhu's song described her dreams for her country. My translator told me the words spoke of the importance of school, and she said something beautiful; she said, 'School is our common home'.

The teenager told me she was worried about going home, because she doesn't want to miss out on the opportunity to go to school. Sitevhu's family are very poor. To help them survive, she had, in the past, been put out to work minding cattle and goats. She told me all children should go to school, because they are tomorrow's leaders. She is right.

Young people in communities devastated by the natural disaster now have big dreams for their futures. They saw the professionals in action after the earthquake, and they were inspired by them. In that way, the earthquake opened up a universe of possibilities.

I met 15-year-old Sushan Shrestra at Ainselukharka High School on the hills outside Melamchi. I christened this 'the school in the clouds'. But though it might seem idyllic, it certainly has issues - one of them is overcrowding. The 326 students come to school in two shifts. You can expect to see up to 72 kids sharing a classroom. Lessons start at 6am, after some of the students have walked for up to two hours to get to school.

Since the earthquake, classes are held in temporary classrooms made of bamboo and metal sheeting. Eventually they will be replaced with permanent structures, but funding has yet to come through.

Laura watches assembly at Ainselukharka High School in Sindhupalchowk District. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms
Laura watches assembly at Ainselukharka High School in Sindhupalchowk District. Photo: Matthieu Chardon @Matthieufilms

When I sat down with Sushan, he told me he wants to make his nation proud on a world stage. He dreams of becoming an aid worker. Sushan has managed to stay top of his class during a year in which he lost all of his school supplies, and his family had to leave their home and build a shelter to live in. He says he wants to travel and help end all the pain in the world. He made me smile when he said, "It's important to be a good human being in the future. Education empowers us; it makes our community stronger and it raises our nation up".

Sushan's hopes for the future were on my mind when I met a group of girls with huge aspirations and also a huge understanding of the challenges they face in a slum along a riverbed back in Kathmandu city.

The Shakti-Samuha group for adolescents works to protect girls from exploitation by educating them about the risks they face.

Let me talk about 16-year-old Kopila again. She told me: "There are no opportunities in this country, no jobs. The government needs to create opportunities for people." In the course of our conversation, Kopila got very upset. What followed was a lively discussion about equal rights. We promised Kopila we would take her story back to Ireland and try to explain to people exactly what education means to her, and how we need to help her get it, and also appreciate what we have here.

But it wasn't at all a depressing conclusion to my visit. That group was so inspiring. We talked about all the things we had in common, and all the things that separate us.

We talked about gender rights, and the girls told me they didn't expect to be able to marry, have a family and hold down a career as well. When I explained that was a very normal ambition in Ireland, and, in fact, my own ambition, you could see their excitement.

The girls walked us back out to the road and our cars. As we passed through the slum, the group linked arms and pointed out all the different fruits and sweets in the street-side stalls, asking me what the names were in English.

When we got to the edge of the slum, Kopila leaned forward to give me a hug. "Don't forget us," she whispered in my ear. I won't. I still can't think about that moment without having to blink back tears. But I don't doubt for a second how bright Nepal's future is, with young people like Kopila to benefit it. The children I met will help build their country back to be even stronger than it was before. Where once there were sub-standard schools, there will eventually be strong and safe structures, and where once there was child trafficking and forced labour, there will be engineers, social workers, doctors and aid workers.

Rebuilding homes and schools is just one aspect of recovery, however, and as we saw, huge work is also being done to change communities and fight old challenges such as domestic abuse and alcoholism.

All the children we met had dreams; they deserve to reach their potential and to contribute to their communities - and to the world - in a way that benefits all of us. Unless we commit to investing in education in the same way that we invest in healthcare, water, sanitation and housing, we risk leaving them behind, and the cost will be immeasurable.

I've travelled the world, and I've seen the same problems in many of the places I've visited. In the Philippines, in Africa, even in Ireland. Education is the solution.

The best thing we can do for any child is give them the chance to lay the groundwork for their own future.

Laura Whitmore travelled to Nepal with Unicef and Echo, the EU's emergency humanitarian fund, to highlight the importance of education in emergency.

To read more and see messages from Unicef Goodwill Ambassador Tom Hiddleston and Irish teen actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo of 'Sing Street' fame, see emergencylessons.ie, or search for #EmergencyLessons on social media. Share your stories about school to support the movement. The EU-Unicef partnership provides education and protection for children in countries such as Cameroon, Guinea, Ukraine, Pakistan, Chad, Kenya and South Sudan

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