Sushil Chhetri left home in Surkhet when he was only six years old with dreams of becoming a hero. Instead, he ended up pawning trash on the streets of Kathmandu and Nepalganj. Now an articulate, good-looking 19-year-old, Chhetri runs his own centre for street children in Kalimati (pictured, right).
Dream Home attends to about 30 children between four and twelve years old. They all live elsewhere, but come in every weekday and some weekends at 8am before going to a nearby school Chhetri has arranged for them. The centre helps them with homework, and gives them supplementary instruction in everything from basic arithmetic to sexual health. Sex education is necessary since many of the kids have been married off at a young age, and are not aware of the hazards of sexual and marital life.
Most of the children are Indian nationals born to migrants originally from Bihari towns like Samastipur, who beg in cities across South Asia but increasingly, find Kathmandu more accessible. These economic migrants first started trickling in about a decade ago. Most begin by begging but slowly graduate into more lucrative jobs, like selling vegetables by the roadside.
Children at Dream Home say they are very happy and are learning a lot. Since arriving, they have scored very well on exams, with some getting as high as 95 per cent in some subjects. More importantly, they have become more confident.
"They've begun to stand up to parents who want to marry them off early and are more serious about school and their future," says Chhetri.
The centre gets some help from NagarHope, a Nagarkot-based organisation, but so far has survived without substantial external funding thanks in large part to Chhetri's flair for cinema. About two years ago, he started a production company called Ghetto Films that makes films about social issues, like homelessness and drug abuse. The actors are all ordinary people who have suffered the grim lives they depict on screen.
Chhetri plans to screen these movies at village schools across the country when the new academic session begins in a few months. He hopes to educate children about social ills like drug use. In return, he will only ask the schools to donate old and unused books to the centre in Kathmandu. "We don't go around begging for money. I've seen how these so-called donor-funded NGOs work and I'm not impressed," says Chhetri.
In Nepalganj, Chhetri worked for an orphanage that, he later discovered, made money out of the children under its care. Indignant, he complained to a well-established organisation that promptly rescued the children. He worked for another NGO for a while but became frustrated with them too when they refused to help a street child who had bone marrow cancer.
At about that time, Chhetri saw advertisements seeking actors to work in Kathmandu, and immediately packed his bags. He acted in two movies, but his nascent career quickly slumped and he wound up back on to the streets. That's when he started Dream Home in Kalimati.
The key lesson he has learned is that the city isn't what it's cut out to be. "So many villagers come to city hoping to strike it rich, but eventually are all disappointed," he says passionately. "Through my documentaries, I want to tell young people in the villages that they should stay put and help people there, because the city doesn't have much to offer."
[email protected] 9849010164
Kathmandu Kids - FROM ISSUE #483 (01 - 17 JAN 2010)